With a public sector experience that spanned over 27 years, Mr. Akin Ambode, Managing Director, Brandsmith Consulting Limited, who retired last year as the Permanent Secretary of the Lagos State Ministry of Finance, has been involved in various aspects of public finance and management. In this interview with Festus Akanbi and Raheem Akingbolu, the 50-year-old Ambode, who was at different times the Auditor-General of Local Government and the state’s Accountant General, spoke about the need for professionals to embrace civil service and the importance of judicious management of public finance to nation’s growth
ou retired very early and one wonders why you were in a hurry, considering that you had not yet reached the official retirement age.
I was not necessarily in a hurry. The fact is that I joined the civil service at a young age; I joined at the age of 22 and worked for 27 years. I got to the peak of my civil service career at the age of 37 as the Auditor General for Local Government. I then worked also as Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Finance. I also worked as Accountant General for Lagos State for a combined period for 12 years. I had done my bit and I needed to move on to explore new things. Therefore, retiring at 49 was not just exciting for me but also timely.
Having worked in various capacities in government, what was the experience like?
I had the singular opportunity of being fortunate to have worked at the height of my career during my civil service days. For instance, working as Accountant General and Auditor General for Lagos State was important as it allowed me to express myself. The fact that two major administrations gave me the opportunity to work at that level allowed me to explore my competencies and skills. But when you compare it to what is happening outside, I think there is a total difference between the private sector and the civil service because civil service is about giving and serving. In the private sector, life is a bit different as players must be able to understand the market trends, economic dynamics and how to create value.
Do we have the type of bureaucracy present in the civil service in the private sector? In the civil service, it tends to slow down the process of work, compared to private sector where things are done faster to get the required result.
There is bureaucracy everywhere; it is just the degree of bureaucracy in the various sectors that are different. I agree to a level that getting things done in civil service could be at a slow pace in some cases but irrespective of bureaucracy or not, a government that is working well will get things done, just the same way players in the private sector get things done. It is the efficiency of bureaucracy that now determines whether things are done properly or not. That is where you will see the difference between the administration in the private sector compared to that in the public sector. A clear case of reference is that of Lagos State. In spite of the bureaucracy in place, they get things done and get it done properly and this explains the level of development in the state in the recent years.
You have been an Auditor General for Local Government. What is your view about internal revenue generation at that tier of government because at times it looks as if it does not exist?
Far from that. From my experience in Lagos State, local governments generate internal revenue by themselves. In addition to that, they still get inflows from the Federation account and at times supplement from state government account. For me, the question to ask is do they really generate enough resources to be able to meet the needs of the citizenry around them? From my own perception, I believe strongly that the local governments still need to find more efficient ways of utilising the resources at their disposal to take care of the citizenry and attend to public needs at all times.
How independent are local governments?
That is an issue of perception and I don’t believe it when someone tries to paint the picture of a system of government that has no administration of their own. They have their own government composition, headed by a chairman. The truth is that in some places, we have not been able to allow local government operate in the way and manner it should be run. I cannot speak for other states but in my experience in Lagos State, the local governments have their own annual budget and projects to execute with resources that have been set aside. Now, whether there are administrative issues or restrictions that make that impossible is a different issue entirely. We cannot say they are muzzled or not allowed to perform.
In view of the general belief that civil service is the engine room of a successful government, what do you think should be done to make civil service attractive to professionals in Nigeria?
Sincerely, the engine room for any government to succeed is the civil service. If the civil service is not working, despite the good intentions of a politician; it will be difficult for him to succeed; that is the truth. A government that intends to succeed needs a strong civil service to do so. If you look around; the difference between an administration that fails and the one that succeed lies in the efficiency of the civil service.
Back to the question, what can we do to make it attractive to professionals? The truth is that professionals need to know that the civil service machinery is the biggest platform where they can use their skills to impact on a larger number of people in this country.
But the tragedy of it all is that we are all carried away about the pay package when we should be more concerned about service to the larger society. Through the participation of more professionals in the running of civil service, we will be able to show that working in the civil service can be efficient; can be enjoyed and can be result oriented. The Civil Service is a place where professionals will be able to innovate and explore the power of creativity and skills. Today’s civil service is open to change and dynamics of modern developments.
The way forward for us in Nigeria is to change that perception that the Civil Service is a laid back institution. We should start seeing it as the institution through which we can change attitudes and impact on the generality of our people. To get the best for the generality of Nigerians, more professionals must take interest in the civil service. We must try to get more people involved in it for us to succeed as a nation.
Almost all governors we have spoken to in recent time, talk about Lagos State as a model in terms of revenue generation and in terms of deployment of resources, do you think that is the optimum level a state can get or is there any room for improvement?
The reason Lagos State has been a model for every state in the country is clear. The state has continued to be a responsive government rather than a reactionary one and that has been the secret of the success recorded over the years. And as long as this continues, the state will remain a model for others. Such approach should be the template for other government institutions in Nigeria. Lagos State government is about things happening, it is about the present and about the future. In fact, it is a system that operates in a manner similar to the operation of the modern day private sector because everything in the system is about adding value and getting results. This notwithstanding, I believe that there is still room for improvement.
Over time, we hear Lagos residents complain about administration of tax, do you agree with the insinuation that Lagosians are over taxed?
I do not think that Lagosians are over-taxed. The idea of people paying taxes for different aspects of their businesses should not be construed to mean that people are over taxed.
After 27 years in the Civil Service, how have you adjusted to private sector, given the different ways of operation?
It has not really been a paradigm shift for me because I have always had this style of work life throughout my career in the civil service. I come from a background with a lot of educational and professional exposure, within and outside Nigeria, and with my experience in government, it has only made it easier for me to transit without much hassles. Even at that, immediately I left the civil service I went to a number of business schools to prepare me for the transition into the private sector and to run my own business. But in terms of my attitude to work, which has been driven by hard work, commitment and the need to get things done properly and efficiently, I have not really changed that and it has helped me tremendously to fit into private sector very well.
Tell us about Brandsmith and what you are out to achieve with it?
Brandsmith Consulting is a public finance management consulting firm seeking to address issues relating to public finance in Nigeria. This is an area that has not been fully exploited in this country because we don’t have too many experts who specialise in public finance. At Brandsmith we use our expertise and knowledge to positively impact on the capacities and capabilities of the people working within and outside government to see how we can improve on public finance management in a way and manner that creates efficient and effective utilisation of public funds in Nigeria. We also offer consulting service to organisations and various arms of governments on financial services.
As a layman, I’m familiar with regular accounting but I understand that it’s multidimensional; can you please explain the difference between public sector accounting and other practices?
Public sector accounting deals mainly with government business and the public sector, especially in the areas of public finance and public sector accounts. We are more interested in key areas of resource generation resource allocation and resource utilisation. That is why we are working with all tiers of government on issues relating to public finance management reforms. As you may be aware, the Federal Government has decided that the country will be compliant with the International Public Sector Accounting Standards (IPSAS) with effect from January 2014. In doing that, the Nigeria government has accepted to be more transparent and allow our financial statements to be documented in a manner that gives a more accurate picture of government affairs and complies with international standards. What the government has been practicing thus far has been a cash-based accounting system. The new accounting system will graduate from cash IPSAS to accrual IPSAS.
Brandsmith has a collaboration with Price Waterhouse Coopers. What is this partnership about?
Brandsmith Consulting has an memorandum of understanding with Price Waterhouse Coopers. The partnership allows us to bring in our expertise in public finance management in conjunction with the technical and international expertise of PWC and as a group, work together to assist various arms of government in Nigeria to achieve conversion to the international public sector accounting standards. We have set up an IPSAS Academy, with which we have trained and are still training public officials at various levels of government, getting them accustomed to the new standards of reporting of public accounts. The conversion involves a lot of capacity building, training and experience, which informs why we were brought in.
Do you see 2014 conversion date as being realistic?
The initial target of government was January 2013. The inability to meet up to that date made the government shift the deadline to 2014. The main goal of Brandsmith Consulting and PWC is to be able to help various levels of government to catch up with the process and at the pace we are going, we should be able to meet the 2014 date. Brandsmith and PWC are complementing government efforts in achieving this goal.
Let’s talk about your foundation; can you take us through it?
I have foundation called La Roche Leadership Foundation, which is a platform for me to give back to society. I think I have gained so much from the society in the last 50 years and I think it is necessary and proper to give something back. I received two massive scholarships in the course of my education and that is what this foundation is about. The foundation was established to attend to support indigent students and train leaders of tomorrow. This is what I think the vision of Nigeria should be all about.
If you are not at work, what do you do?
I love music. These days I am enjoying a lot of music by Nigerian artistes; some of them are very talented. I read books, I love to travel, see new places and people. I sometimes give leadership and career talks to young people.
What kind of books do you read?
I read books on so many subjects. Coincidentally, I’m in the middle of El-Rufai’s ‘Accidental Public Servant’. I like history books and recently read ‘The Crippled Giant’ a story about Nigeria’s pre-independence and post-independence. I will recommend it to any student of history.
When you look back, are there things you did that you would have done differently if you have the opportunity, may be in the area of course of study or otherwise?
I am not too sure there is anything I would have done differently because in the last 50 years I have been blessed with rare opportunities and privileges that have shaped my life and career. I’m also happy to have been able to contribute to the development and growth of Lagos State.
Akin Ambode started school at St Jude’s Primary School, Ebute Meta, went on to Federal Government College Warri, and studied Accounting at the University of Lagos, graduating at 21.
At 24, he had become a member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria and finished a Masters degree in Accounting specialising in Financial Management, also at the University of Lagos, via a Federal Government Scholarship. He also received a US Fulbright scholarship for the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship, in Massachusetts. He has attended leadership and business school programmes at Wharton, Cranfield, INSEAD, the Institute of Management Development, Lausanne and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Boston.
He reached a significant milestone in his public service career at 37, when he became the Auditor General of Local Government in Lagos State. He went on to become the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Finance and Accountant General of Lagos State, where he retired from last year at the age of 49.