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Reforming the Nigerian Civil Service: Tunji Olaopa's Struggles, Pain and Triumphs - Part 7
Dr. Tunji Olaopa
The transition to any new government is always, in several ways, an ambivalent moment for any reformer. Depending on whatever stage the reform dynamics has reached, the reformer always feels an acute sense of apprehension: What is going to happen? Will the reform accelerate beyond the momentum of the preceding government? Can this new government overcome the existing reform obstacles? Will the new government commit to reform exigencies? What possible variables can surface with the new government? Will the new government slow down whatever gains have been made? These questions capture the bated anxiety as the transition occur and the government settles down.
The Buhari administration constitutes the fourth Nigerian government since the inauguration of our democratic experiment in 1999. And it is a fortunate government; more fortunate, that is, than the Obasanjo administration which had to pick the pieces of the military regimes and the debris of national misgovernance.
In the first place, some of the teething challenges of democratic governance are already in the process of institutional resolution. Second, several administrative insights have been excavated about our collective predicament. Third, Nigeria has moved forward beyond where she was in the pre-1999 period. But all these do not diminish the challenges that the new Buhari administration has to face; challenges the administration itself is aware of: bureaucratic and political corruption, rampaging unemployment, infrastructural deficit, economic mismanagement, and many more indices of underdevelopment in Nigeria.
The change slogan is therefore timely and right on target. But change requires more than mere sloganeering. Hence, the question: Within our present national context, what does change require? Albert Einstein delivers a profound statement in this regard: ‘The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.’
The most significant condition for change, therefore, is a deep, on-the-ground brainstorming and awareness about how we got to where we are and what we can do to get beyond where we are. (In administrative terms, I provided a capsule gist of our reform history in part three of the series.) Change also requires that (a) there is the need for a calm urgency to recognise bold ideas that requires bold execution; (b) the policies that must be executed must be those that will make real difference in citizens’ lives; and (c) institutional discipline which attends to culture and structure is a sine qua non if change must bite positively.
In terms of administrative transformation, the Buhari administration will have to come to term with the challenges of change management and reform consolidation. Change is essentially institutional; it implies deploying a whole reform arsenal to the national framework to achieve a critical paradigm shift in administrative capacity and service delivery efficiency. Change refers to a specific, deliberate and phased transformation of some existing institutional configurations.
Put this way, change becomes a widespread and extensive reconstructive imperative for tackling the series of problem that Nigeria has been known with since independence. And we seem to be moving in that direction with the President’s initial explanation about the urgent need to put in place rules of conduct and principles of good governance before any other institutional engagements.
There are two complementary institutional directions which change necessarily must take. The first is a general cultural and attitudinal transformation that must seek to achieve a new value framework of accountability, openness, transparency, efficiency, effectiveness and managerial culture through specific instruments of reform—(i) citizens empowerment, (ii) policy dialogue and networking, (c) normalisation of employment condition, (d) delegation of authority, (e) performance-oriented focus, and (f) trusted leadership.
Institutional reform would amount to nothing without these cultural changes in attitudes. These are the ethos that the institutions must work with. But the dynamics of the reform must be simultaneous—institutional transformation cannot wait it turn while attitudinal change is proceeding.
The Buhari administration will only be successful if it commits to its change programme with a careful attention to the change management dynamics needed to take reform from conception to implementation and sustainable management. In part four of this serial, we identified and outlined the execution trap which makes it so that reform vision never achieve successful implementation. And if reforms are not implemented, then productivity cannot become optimal and government cannot become efficient in terms of service delivery to the populace. This is the most fundamental reform challenge of the Buhari administration—the reform framework requires guided coordination and monitoring if it must have a huge chance of succeeding.
In The Nigerian Civil Service of the Future (2014), I made a solid case for what I called a ‘core institutional framework for managing the reform process.’ At the centre of this framework is a very strong ownership principle that speaks to the commitment of the leadership to the reform conception, implementation and management dynamics. And guiding that ownership is a lead agency that is charged with the overall responsibility of programme formulation, planning and coordination of the reform process, the clarification of reform objectives and strategies as well as monitoring and evaluation of the reform progress.
I recommended the Bureau for Public Service Reform (BPSR) as the institution that could be reconstituted to adequately take charge of the reform process. When it was established, the BPSR was mandated to oversee and cumulate the reform dynamics, especially in the ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs). This is very crucial because, one, the MDAs are the locus of efficiency which administrative reforms must urgently target; and two, the MDAs are equally the central emblem of the national productivity challenge Nigeria faces. We have made the point in the last part of this series that the MDAs management system must urgently be reengineered into a performance-oriented, technology-enabled and social compact or accountable business model.
In this regard, the BPSR already has its responsibility cut out for it—changing the way we do government business. This involves the trajectory of how we get the right people to do the right actions, at the right time with the planned results. And since the MDAs are critical to productivity efficiency, the BPSR must ask cogent questions:
i. What kind of public service is appropriate for us at this level of our development and given our vision of national transformation?
ii. How can we get MDAs operations to be restructured to deliver results and outcomes?
iii. How can the MDAs’ skills deficit be corrected in a manner that would ensure a mix of re-skilling, regulated injection of fresh new skills and some measure of rightsizing or redundancies declaration if unavoidable?
iv. What would be the contingent changes to personnel policies, pay structure and operational cost ratios that is most cost effective and consistent with the optimal productivity level of the national economy?
It must then follow through with specific preliminary reform actions which involves the following—(a) breakdown the silos between the multi-layers of structures through functional reviews and process reengineering; (b) do widespread gap analysis to anticipate where there are performance gaps and where a lack of alignment could undermine results achieved; (c) develop more and more creative ways to retain and attract scarce skills to enlarge your talent pool and increase service’s Intelligent Quotient (IQ); and (d) match the task with the skills to ensure high performance since the stronger performers will excel and the sub-performers will not have anywhere to hide.
Furthermore, in The Nigerian Civil Service of the Future, I painstakingly outlined several long- and short-term action plans which the BPSR could then oversee within the trajectory of sustained reform activities that would in the final analysis impact on the lives of Nigerian which the Buhari administration is committed to changing. The change mantra needs to come alive, and its takes the enthusiasm and the commitment of the leadership, political and bureaucratic. For Mary Kay Ash, ‘Those who are blessed with the most talent don’t necessarily outperform everyone else.
It’s the people with follow-through who excel.’ For change to succeed, we need a follow-through commitment. I have commented over and again on the success of the old Western region civil service and the astounding collaboration between the bureaucratic and political leadership that generated the Awolowo-Adebo model of reform success. It is time we take that model serious.
Optimism can be a terrible thing sometimes, but a patriotic and committed reformer cannot afford to lose optimism. Of course, if reform is an unending quest, especially in a difficult context like Nigeria—if reform, that is, is tied to the eventual fate of Nigeria’s national development, then optimism cannot afford to ebb.
Dr. Tunji Olaopa is a retired federal permanent secretary.