Monday, 21 December 2015

Reforming the Nigerian Civil Service: Tunji Olaopa's Struggles, Pain and Triumphs - Part 4

Dr. Tunji Olaopa is a retired Federal Permanent Secretary.

The part three of this series offered the concept of trajectory as a methodological concept by which we can understand the evolution of reform visions and strategies since the beginning of the civil service system in Nigeria. And we saw that it is with the Udoji Commission that Nigeria and her civil service system came closest to reengineering a reform dynamics that would have launched our public service on a global track of managerial efficiency. Unfortunately, the administrative decision making dynamics of the Gowon regime failed to differentiate the substance of that report from its trivial components. Instead of “Udoji” being a signifier of administrative hindsight; it became a pointer to national profligacy.
I was not part of the Udoji Commission, but every true reformer feels the pain of its unfulfilled potentials. I specifically feel the trauma more because I have been involved in the specifics of reform complexity, and I clearly understood what we have missed in administrative and historical terms. We made the point in the last part that we are still trying to catch up with its incredible administrative diagnosis of the pathology of the civil service system in Nigeria. And this is that the system lacks the capacity for change and adaptability. This is the first fundamental reason why most reforms efforts and strategies have failed in Nigeria. We have a tapestry of well-intentioned reform blueprints from 1954 till date, but unfortunately we have little to show in terms of the capability readiness of the civil service to encounter global and local changes and effectively engage them.
As at the time the Udoji Commission was established, the civil service system in Nigeria, like its British counterpart, had already reached its bureaucratic point; it had become a great rock in the tideline. Beginning with the Nigerianisation Policy which favoured representativeness over merit, the decline of the civil service was accelerated with the destruction of the Weberian administrative structure by the structural adjustment programme (SAP). Since the 80s, therefore, most of the reform programmes have been serious exercises in administrative damage control. The major question of reform has been: How do we build effective capacities that would make the public service regain its efficiency and attain a world class status as a service delivery institution capable of establishing democratic governance?
I take this question as both theoretical and practical. The theoretical dimension to arriving at an adequate answer requires that we understand why reforms have failed for so many years in Nigeria. Why has the trajectory of reform progress failed to reach the omega-point?The ultimate objective of every reform programme is to either restore a system back to its original state of efficiency or take it beyond a present point to a future state where it is better able to respond to institutional challenges, internally and externally. When we think reform, we think performance. Performance simply means getting the public service to work at its best possible optimal level. Performance, in other words, is the operational dynamics that makes good governance possible. But there is a long stretch between the reform and the achievement of a performance credential, and that stretch is littered with a whole lot of complex variable. We call that complexity the execution trap. Reforms succeed or fail in the details; that is where the devil resides. Reforms have often failed because beautifully crafted reform plans have been backed by poorly conceived strategy for execution. The fact however is given a poorly conceived strategy for execution, the best reform idea will always fail.
The visions of where we want our civil service to be in ten and twenty years are not hard to come by. What is difficult is the will to push that vision to its logical conclusion by implementing its roughest details. In other words, the vision of reform must always be weighed against the reality of implementing the vision. Most visions have died because they had no good soil in reality to aid their survival. And the single most significant factor in mediating the conception-reality gap is a perceptive administrative decision making dynamics. The dynamics is realised in the administrative boundary between doing things right and doing the right things. The Udoji Commission Report and its recommendations were destroyed in the very act of deciding what to implement and what to put in abeyance. The decisional/policy failure is the first condition that ensures that a good reform plan hopelessly falls apart. This failure manifest at four (4) levels: (i) failure to anticipate problem before it surfaced; (ii) failure to see problem for what it is what it is when it surfaced; (iii) the tendency to ignore the problem even when properly perceived; and (iv) failure of attempts to resolve the problem.
Policy failure in reform implementation is further complemented by operational and strategic disconnection. As far as execution is concerned, reform strategic plans must not just be dedicated to the analysis of data about how to go about reforming; rather, it must ensure that the data translate to action plan which will bring about growth, increased productivity, and quality of goods and services. Reform implies the willingness to think strategically. In this case, we can say that a vision is only as good as the strategy that instrumentalizes it, and keys it into the governance framework of a state. Thinking strategically involves asking fundamental questions: (a) Can we identify how we’re going to turn the plan into specific results for growth and productivity? (b) Are we staffed with the right kinds of people to execute the plan? (c) If not, what are we going to do about it? (d) How do we make sure the operating plan has sufficient specific programs to deliver the outcomes to which we’ve committed?
All these questions point to the inevitable role of the MDAs in reform failure. And this is precisely to the extent that the operating system by which MDAs convert policies to action are inherently faulty. Within the Nigerian context, the MDAs are caught between two different and incongruous administrative business models-the Weberian and the neoliberal-operating side by side and simultaneously. This effectively translates, also, into worries about systemic capability and capacity issues involving (i) input process-oriented business model; (ii) skills and competency gaps; (iii) lack of clarity on actions required to execute national plan; (iv) poor alignment between national plans, sectoral activities and departmental/unit programmes; (v) unclear accountabilities for execution; (vi) inadequate performance monitoring and reporting; (vii) organizational silos and culture blocking of execution; and (viii) undefined rewards and sanctions.
So, given there that there are good reform ideas, visions and blueprint, they will definitely meet their waterloo in the glaring lack of capability readiness for execution in the MDAs as the powerhouse for administrative efficiency. This is exactly the point of frustration for most reform-minded administrator. I spent twenty-plus years studying the policy, capacity, resource, process and performance gaps created by the reform deficiency of the MDAs, and the point of my depression is that these gaps steadily built up over long years of bureaucratic complacency. And again, we turn full cycle back to the neglected possibilities of the Udoji recommended reform. At the core of that reform would have been an attempted at instituting a performance management metric into the very operational heart of the MDAs to make them more efficient. When Udoji failed, there was nothing to arrest the MDAs’ inevitable drift into bureaucratic pathology.
My evolution as an administrative reformer therefore had a straightforward pattern-I spent countless times at conferences, meetings, fora, seminars and inside books attempting to make sense of Nigeria’s administrative predicament while also simultaneously reflecting on the possible ways out of the bureaucratic conundrum. Even though the level of dysfunction is enough to constantly induce depression and disillusionment, one of the high points of my engagement with the civil service system is that I got the opportunity to define and refine my understanding of the idea of public service, outside of the corruption of bureaucratic pathology. How did the idea of the public service evolve, and what are the vocational intentions behind it? In part five of this series, I will sketch those core elements of the institution of the public service. And in part six, I will have the opportunity of outlining the personal vision of how the Nigerian civil service can overcome its limitations and deficiencies and move on to becoming a world class institution that we all dream about.

by Tunji Olaopa (with original title - Reforming the Nigerian Civil Service: My Struggles, My Pain, My Triumphs) 

*Dr. Tunji Olaopa is a retired Federal Permanent Secretary.

Part 5 will be serialised...

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