Beyond Tenure Policy: Perspective for Desirable Future Civil Service

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Tunji Olaopa
In an earlier article, I addressed the tenure policy controversy and why I think its current incidence foregrounds the deeper issue of taking the civil service in Nigeria to a point closer to the noble objective of becoming a world class institution. That objective expressed in the National Strategy for Public Service Reform (NSPSR), Nigeria’s defining reform document, is noble because it is only such a world class administrative institution that has the capability readiness to backstop Nigeria’s democracy for developmental purposes. A simple way to put this is to say that the Nigerian development challenge, if the metaphor of an engine-propelled dynamic is applied, requires a Jet engine to carry it to the desired destination. But alas, it is, as-is, propelled by the engine of a Beatle car.

And what makes a public service system world class is very simple but profound—it is founded on a change management programme grounded firmly on continuous learning (of what works and what does not work), getting it right and continuing to get it right without ceasing through incremental but sustained improvement, performance management principles, a culture of innovation that puts significant weight on meritocracy, entrepreneurship and professionalism, thus ensuring that the entire machinery of the civil service is primed for the democratic task of service delivery that works efficiently and effectively, and for the people.

You might be asking, why aspire to build a world class civil service given the current state of its health as a management system and constraining state capacity? What fuels my optimism is that once again, in our national historical trajectory, we have another occasion where, even if at the level of discourse, there is a unique coincidence between the demands of administration and that of governance. When the Udoji Commission got its mandate to assess the capability readiness of the Nigerian civil service in 1974 at a time when the state occupied the commanding height of the economy, there was already a global imperative that dictates managerialism as the pathway to administrative excellence.

The Udoji Report outlines a brilliant blueprint that would have enabled Nigeria to harness its then newly found petrodollar towards the transformation of its governmental responsibility. We unfortunately missed that moment; Udoji thereafter became synonymous with a large influx of money into the Nigerian economy rather than the diffusion of administrative managerialism that could have laid the foundation for the basic management infrastructure for connecting to the managerial culture in administration which, up unto now, we are still struggling to adopt. This is yet another moment when the Buhari change agenda coincides fortuitously with the imperative of change management that involves the capability readiness of the civil service system in Nigeria to confront local, national, regional and global challenges within the context of developmental democracy.

The issue at stake at the moment is the removal of the tenure policy that undergirds the career of the Nigerian public servant, pronounced unfortunately without a framework of the change or managerial shift intended making it more of a politically inspired policy than anything else. Henry Ward Beecher, the US cleric, reminds us clearly: “Not that which men do worthily, but that which they do successfully, is what history makes haste to record.” The tenure policy issue presages a larger issue of performance management in the public service.

Let me restate the point, that tenure policy has little meaning for the future of the civil service if its significance is consigned to the issue of career progression of officers who have always been Federal officers as distinct from transferees as it succeeded in resolving partially in 2009. So if we should be concerned about the future of the civil service, redeeming the tenure policy is too insignificant in the deep structural issues at the heart of the crisis of the service of the moment.

Before attempting to address the deep systemic issues, the first issue to confront is restoring the basics of the civil service which entails basic housekeeping (getting the basics right). In this regard, my doctoral thesis is worth restating regarding a federal workforce composition wherein too many people do nothing, too many do too little and too few do too much. What does that suggest? A few of the endless indicators of service’s crisis state will drive home the point: A situation where, due to budget shortfall and/or misallocation, major activities of MDAs can’t be funded thus rendering bulk of sections, units and their staff redundant largely, all year round, in what could be understood as a dimension of capacity underutilisation; situation where due to shortage of office accommodation, dozens of senior officers share few available office spaces and have to work out roaster of who come to work on what days with bosses looking elsewhere due to helplessness of the situation; situation where basic entitlements of staff and out-of-pocket expenses incurred on legitimate official assignments get unpaid for years; situation where overseas trips are enjoyed by those in good books of the Ogas and training budgets are spent under labour union-induced militancy for welfare; to name just a few; a reality symptomatic of a collapsed system that works by muddling through, re-cycling of ignorance, consultancies and technical assistance life-support system, and thus waiting for genuine restoration as it is impossible for it to be disbanded and it is reformable.

Situation where organisational structures are diagrams and schedules of duties are paper tigers rather than tools of day to day operations. This situation which explains why state governments live only to pay salaries have been like this for a while because, given numerous intervening variables chief of which is adversarial unionism, it calls for bail out by the political class who must be willing to bite the bullet at the nick of time and get into the trench to confront the real issues at the heart of government historical non-performance.

This especially, as the culture of speaking truth to power in the civil service has long been replaced by a conspiracy of silence of the administrative leadership over the years having been emasculated to simply survive by existential logic and raison d’être. And of course the Federal Service reality is good practice by any standard when compared with what operates in States, where MDAs operate by logic that respects no notion of what a management system or profession is in theory or in operation.

And it is this larger systemic issue as well as those that are critical for Nigeria to achieve national productivity in the face of dwindling national revenue that require successful handling if posterity would be effusive in praising our diligence.

But while performance management that tenure policy constitutes a global best practice within public managerial revolution, it requires context specificities within specific public service if we will take on dimensions of reform of a service that would be pillar of a developmental state. Thus, what does performance management translate to in a reflection on how to make the civil service system in Nigeria a world class institution? How does performance management in the public service instigate national development in Nigeria?

The base fact to engage about the civil service in Nigeria is its essentially bureaucratic nature which supports a pathological administrative culture which fosters non-performance. In most cases, the public service, because of its huge operational necessities, usually collapse upon itself. In other words, the complexity of its coordination activities and the implementation of government policies translate into a framework which privileges an input-process business orientation which enfolds the public service within itself while rejecting change and innovation. In Nigeria, like everywhere else, this bureaucratic administrative dynamics cultivates a nepotistic system which combines with ethnic and religious sentiments to produce development-undermining stasis.

The credibility of the change agenda in Nigeria therefore depends on a paradigm shift to an entrepreneurial, output-outcome, technology-based, result-oriented system which demands from permanent secretaries, directors and CEOs strict attention to policy deliverables that make development meaningful. At the foundation of the performance management model is the concern about productivity and the citizens as customers with justified expectations about the performance of government. This model is preserved by eight values, namely: openness, confrontation, trust, authenticity, pro-activity, autonomy, collaboration, and experimentation. In my twenty seven years in the public service, what kept me going was the hope that this vision of a new public service would come to fruition.

But what hope must overcome is the present administrative predicament in Nigeria and its bureau-pathology. For one and going by reigning standard, the public service becomes a space where an average knowledge worker would have to abandon all forms of investment in self development, skills and competence, and rather hope that an intimate connection to the President, Minister, Governor or Senator is all that is needed to achieve professional height and this is worrisome and crippling for a profession as politicised as the Nigeria’s civil service. On another level, so many are appointed without any discernible competences or competency-based criteria.

Thus, when input-process model is welded to bureau-pathology, it only then appears that Nigeria is mocking itself in its aspiration of achieving a world class civil service institution that serves as the fulcrum for national development. Within this context, the tenure policy is shorn of all its appeal as an administrative strategy. There certainly would not be such an outcry about the relevance of tenure within a result-outcome model which invests enormous performance responsibility in any tenured career.

Beyond the tenure policy issue, the salvation of the civil service in Nigeria really lies with its grafting within a viable institutional framework which generates values, processes and circumscribe excesses. Institutionalisation and reform are simply two sides of the same coin because reform is meant to put in place the required structural changes and modalities that would constitute the fundamental dynamics by which an institution is concretised and established.

The tenure policy is just one part of an array of institutional reforms the civil service system requires to effectively synchronise itself with the development objective of the Nigerian state. If I am asked for an immediate commencement point from which this almost overwhelming administrative predicament in Nigeria could be tackled, I will unhesitatingly recommend the imperative of a massive re-professionalisation scheme which works with the modest objective of infusing the civil service system with a modicum of professional pride and the necessity of performance.

Re-professionalisation implies a change in the culture of doing things which cannot occur simply by changing regulations, structures, processes and technology. On the contrary, what is fundamental to it is a transformation of the orientation of public servants through a robust competency-driven, competitive, people-centred rebranding programme. This, as far as I am concerned, is the first condition in the performance management project.

It involves, for instance, the need to evolve a new career management system leading to the acquisition of officers with capacities and skills in specialised fields of knowledge. Re-professionalising also involves the process of constant re-skilling as well as the deepening of strategic policy intelligence and action research in service.

Re-professionalisation automatically places a burden of responsibility on the gate-keepers of the profession, i.e. the Head of the Civil Service of the Federation, the Federal Civil Service Commission (FCSC) and the Permanent Secretaries/CEOs of Agencies, and their state counterparts, to establish a constantly evolving programme of training and retraining as well as the reform of the recruitment and HR functions in a manner that infuse the civil service with competent blood. Like David Ivor Young, the British politician, humorously noted, “God helps those who train themselves.”

The priority thus given to capacity development will be meaningless if there is no fundamental shift in the intellectual base of the managerial corps of the civil service from being, as is, generalists who know little about a lot, to being what Gratton calls being a ‘serial master’, having indepth knowledge and competences in a number of domains. This is the intellectual capital that the service’s new managers then deploy as capacity to lead employees, engage stakeholders, develop, implement and account for programmes and projects, structure system and operations, apply technology, mobilise and manage financial resources and integrate resources and programmes.

In this connection, I dare add that the speed at which the civil service is adjusting to the demands of technological literacy is evidently low. This is putting pressure on the service’s ability to develop and access vast amount of data available on the Internet superhighway. Deep-seated reengineering to reflect increasing emphasis on eGovernment, performance-oriented systems and PPPs is therefore a compelling reform necessity.

If I am asked for a second most immediate reform point that would invigorate Buhari’s change agenda, I will immediately urge the necessity of a blueprint for the exit of the retiring public servants who have served the nation to the best of their capabilities. For the public service in Nigeria, as well as elsewhere, entry is as significant as exit. Yet, we have failed to outline any detailed programmes that will ease out those who have exhausted their capacities in the service of their country. One of the critical challenges of the civil service today is its uncharacteristic bloatedness. And one reason for this is the loose entry and exit qualifications.

Take exit, for instance. It is not enough to say a civil servant should retire after 35 years of service or at 60 years of age. The question which the civil servant asks, and which carries the utmost weight of existential significance, is: What do I do next? If there is no serious answer on the horizon beyond officers’ self preparation, it becomes logical when officers try by crook and means to extend their stay in the service illegally, with serious performance implications.

Thus, while the HCSF, FCSC, PS’, CEOs and the States HOS’ and SCSC are concerned with entry requirements, a significant plank of Buhari’s change agenda must be devoted to decreasing the workforce through a creative exit plan that is humane, dignifying and considerate. Such a plan must insert a vigorous employability scheme that enables retiring public servants to acquire new skills that would enable them invest their time and gratuity well in retirement. We cannot afford to use up the time and skills of public servants in their productive years and then dump them when they are made vulnerable by age or redundancy.

But outside of the immediacy of linking change management to the change agenda, the institutional requirements of the civil service in Nigeria are much more deep-seated. For one, there is a fundamental need for a new governance philosophy on which the civil service will operate in the first place.

Consequent on the assault of the Weberian model by the managerial revolution supervised by the New Public Management, and its failure in most third world states, the neo-Weberian model permits a creative adaptation of the critical elements in Weberianism and managerialism in response to the administrative peculiarities of Nigeria. By logical and administrative necessity, the next institutional requirement for the new public service would be the persistent and determined recruitment and aggregation of a critical mass of new professionals who understands the challenges of the civil service, Nigeria’s predicament, the evolving global knowledge imperative and what to do to reconnect the civil service in Nigeria after the lost opportunity provided by the Udoji Report of 1974. This makes a creative and smart HRM policy architecture one significant reform exigency which any change agenda cannot ignore.

The strategic HR policy will have to deal with determining workforce skill composition and gaps. Profile the service IQ, and eliminate redundancies. And this creativity speaks to the need to galvanise a few ingenious and technologically/technically savvy civil servants rather than a horde of others who simply occupy critical spaces.

The third institutional requirement, and a corollary to the previous two, connects the civil service to the urgency of rejigging Nigeria’s productivity profile through a framework of public-private partnership. This translates into a dynamic attempt at fast tracking growth by leveraging the private sector organisational framework to the competences of the public service to facilitate rapid development, especially in democratic service delivery to the citizens. This will automatically necessitate the remodelling of the various MDAs and their management systems into performance-oriented, technology-enabled and accountable business model that delivers efficiently on their mandates. It is also critical that these management systems be injected with a framework for addressing the policy gap through a research-policy nexus which addresses a robust productivity culture through institutionalised strategic planning, monitoring, evaluation and action research.

Lastly, to complete the institutional framework for transforming the civil service system in Nigeria, the civil service will definitely remain as it is if there is no diligent and determined attempt at confronting bureaucratic corruption. Corruption stands at the very core of administrative refusal to transform the core elements of the civil service system into a vibrant institution that engages changes and innovation.

A formidable reform must therefore integrate a staunch and committed anti-corruption procedures and frameworks, involving the enactment of anti-corruption laws, establishment of watch-dog bodies, and enforcement of ethical and accountability codes, which would effectively keep the gains of the reforms from flowing back into the terrible black hole of bureaucratic and political corruption. To get to the root of all this requires a long-term strategy to build a new generation of public managers in the wings of deep-seated national values reorientation that in turn rides on a national productivity movement.

The new generation of public managers would be a core of professionals with deep understanding of service as vocation and a calling. Therefore, for them, being civil servant is more than just employment. It is a spiritual endeavour which entails a daily search for meaning which inspire officers to work conscientiously and to be treated by their employer and society with respect and trust. It follows therefore that integrity, values and sense of purpose are critical to building a competent, professional and developmental orientation in the public service. Consequently, personal characteristics of those recruited into the service becomes critical.

Simply having a good system as object of reform is not enough if the people managing it do not imbibe its ideals and core values. Research has indeed shown the links between job satisfaction and commitment of employees to client satisfaction as well as trust that the public has in the administrative system in what has been conceptualised as the ‘public service value chain’. This in turn suggest that as the values prevalent in service are reflections of national value system with low values strongly correlated to the level of poverty in society, moral rearmament through society-wide values reorientation remains a critical success factor in the infusing of integrity as spiritual capital and in public service overall structural transformation.

Suffice it to add that it is trite to demand ethical standards in the civil service if such standards are not shared by politicians, the business and non-state sectors. At the backend however, is a sound and viable legal instrument and codes that is not just preventive but strictly enforced if flouted.

Reforming the civil service system in Nigeria is too significant to be reduced to specific issues like the tenure policy. Tenure is significant for the civil service but its return ought to be the first step in a determined political will to combat the entire civil service itself and its institutional deficiency. It is only within this political will that the change agenda can take off.

–– Tunji Olaopa is the Executive Vice Chairman, Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP) [tolaopa2003@gmail.com; tolaopa2003@yahoo.com; tolaopa@isgpp.com.ng]