Professionalisng the Civil Service and Role of NAPAM

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Tunji Olaopa

If the civil service must regain its professional status, then it will take the gut and commitment of civil servants who understand what is at stake. Professionalising the civil service is a courageous act, but it is what must really be done. Thus, for Jayelle Cochran, “To be professional you need to be professional.” In other words, it is professionalism that will reverse the increasingly diminishing status of the vocation of public service.

We have all heard about the bureaucracy, and we hate its red tape with a passion! There is a bureaucratic version of the reputation that the civil service has, that to get a simple “No” in the civil service, you need to have gone through six offices. And some Nigerians, unlike what obtained in its glorious era, carry very negative perception of the public servant as arrogant, corrupt, lazy, aggressive, snobbish, and ignorant. But I have been a civil servant all my life; I was an insider and I know the steady but dogged efforts of colleagues, over the last decades, to redeem the profession they have dedicated their lives to. The issues is: how far in the reform direction has the service gone or is capable of getting?

“Anyone,” says Lawrence Lowell, “who sees in his own occupation merely a means of earning money degrades it; but he that sees in it a service to mankind ennobles both his labor and himself.” There is no doubt that in Nigeria today, when the civil service employment forms are advertised, most of those who apply do so for reasons less than the desire for professionalism. First, a civil service job, though most often the last on anyone’s preference list, would deliver the unemployed from certain frustration arising from the unemployment matrix in Nigeria. And second, the civil service provides an easy means of livelihood most importantly, career security. Within this frame and perception, the civil service is where you go to when you need ample time to pursue some other real and lucrative business during office hours, so goes popular narratives!

Thus, the vocation that began as an honourable specialization and prided itself on its professionalism has become degraded by the socioeconomic realities currently haunting Nigeria. It will therefore be strange to leave the transformation of the public service to chance or to the service leadership alone. Like all the life sciences, the significance of the civil service lies in its critical relations to the life of any nation. The civil service, that is, stands at the heart of a nation’s development effort. If the civil service system is strangulated by its own complex tasks and challenges, then the nation dies a slow but painful death in development terms. It is professionalism therefore that will save the civil service system in Nigeria.

The onus of responsibility therefore falls on those critical mass of professionals—public servants, public administrators and especially the head of the service of the federation, as a central coordinatory figure, to jumpstart a reform dynamics that arrest the sabotage of the service, and restore its professionalism. It is in this sense that we can say leadership is a critical defensive mechanism; a bulwark that prevents a rising flood from becoming too overwhelming, especially against a profession that is struggling for relevance in a situation of terrible underdevelopment.

And it is James Baldwin, the US writer, who hit the nail of the leadership responsibility right on the head: “The price one pays for pursuing any profession or calling is an intimate knowledge of its ugly side.” The significant insight here is that to be able to safeguard a profession’s ideals, there must be a readiness to inquire into its dark ugly side. And one such ugly side of the civil service profession in Nigeria is its neglect of an organisational platform organised around committed public administrators and public servants who form the critical mass of professionals agitated about the status and survival of the vocation of the civil service. I have in mind here the Nigerian Association of Public Administration and Management (NAPAM).

One of the definitive attribute of any profession is the availability of a professional gatekeeper, a coordinatory professional body that ensures that the ideals and objectives of the profession are always kept under constant vigilance. A professional body represents the delineation of the profession as a critical and responsible public entity with the willingness to demonstrate passion, commitment, accountability, fairness and moral integrity in its dealing with the society. The professional body therefore functions at all time to outline the difference between the professional and the unprofessional, as well as circumscribe any unbecoming professional conduct. With regards to public administration, a professional body has a very tough task: it must defend the vocation of public service that has been evolving for many centuries, and that has come face to face with critical task of development in a country like Nigeria that must deliver the gains of democratic governance to its citizens very fast.

The essence of an association of public administration and management, like the Nigerian Association of Public Administration and Management (NAPAM), is therefore to facilitate a continuing interchange, exchange and discourse on the state of the civil service and its relationship to the Nigerian national development. As a body of concerned experts and stakeholders, the association provides a critical platform where ideas, frameworks, models, dynamics and paradigms are articulated, rearticulated, and disseminated on variety of issues bordering on the profession, professionalism, capacity building, career management, and every other thing that affects the functioning of the profession. Like its continental counterpart, AAPAM, NAPAM would have the following objectives: (a) serve as a community of experience around which crucial experiential issues are disseminated and discussed; (b) it will constitute a reform hub on whatsoever ails the civil service; (c) provide a forum for scholars, public administrators, managers, students and teachers of administration to share and exchange ideas on the evolution and performance of the Nigerian public service; (d) ensure a constant conversation on the safeguarding of the professional vocation of the civil service; (e) promote continuing research on the significance of the civil service to the development challenge in Nigeria; and (f) service as the focal point for a comparative experience sharing with other administration and management bodies on a regional and global levels.

Unfortunately, while the African Association of Public Administration and Management (AAPAM) is alive, inspite of its many challenges, and well, its Nigerian counterpart is practically non-existent. For instance, there is no web presence whatsoever that could help elicit some tangible information about its organisational mission and objectives. And no wonder the task of reform has lacked a committed ownership especially around those who ought to know and fight for their profession. The absence of NAPAM not only undermines the status of the civil service as a professional vocation in Nigeria (and administrative realities already seem to confirm this), it also essentially frustrates genuine reform efforts. An explanation is apt in this regard. One of the critical issues of debate in civil service reform, especially in Africa, is to what extent reformers can be trusted with the reform of their own institution.

Can a public servant be trusted to achieve an objective assessment and committed reform of a dysfunctional structure of which s/he is a significant part? The answer to this puzzle is neither here nor there. A genuinely functional professional body like NAPAM could step into the breach in this regard. And its task, apart from others, would be to set the tone of administrative progress and efficiency in terms of relating global best practices with local realities through stringent comparative analysis.

In this sense, revitalizing NAPAM as a core organisational feature in civil service practice in Nigeria would be a major reform coup for anyone suitably placed to intervene in its comatose operations. And I have in mind all those still toiling within the hallowed administrative chamber of the civil service system. It will immediately arm the reformer with a distinct and unique platform to harness ideas and insights, from a core and critical group of professionals, about the current state of the civil service and how to move it beyond its present debilitating dysfunction. The reconstitution and reestablishment of NAPAM, as a community of service and experience, becomes a brilliant annexation of multiple minds to the rehabilitation of the civil service system in Nigeria.

The civil service system in Nigeria, as is, urgently requires the resuscitation of NAPAM as a crucial ally in the reform challenge. As a watchdog, NAPAM would be better placed, together with the Office of the Head of the Civil Service of the Federation (OHCSF), Federal Civil Service Commission (FCSC), Bureau of Public Service Reforms (BPSR), et al, to rescue the terrible drain on civil service professionalism in Nigeria. A profession requires serious commitment that transcends mere lip service to who a public servant is. Public service must be held up constantly to a higher ethical standard that speaks to any sharp practices like inefficiency, financial impropriety, corruption, etc. and NAPAM is the first order of professional business in this regard. Without NAPAM, the civil service professional status is grossly endangered.

Last question: Whose responsibility is it to activate NAPAM’s revitalization? My answer is simply that it is a collective responsibility of the community of those who have one stake or the other not only in the trajectory of public administration and management in Nigeria, but also in Nigeria’s national development possibilities. Civil servants, public administrators, managers, academics, and, if I am asked, the head of service of the federation—all these are critical stakeholders who are essential to transforming the present administration’s change agenda from a mere slogan to a real game changer.
––Dr. Olaopa is the Executive Vice Chairman, Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP),[tolaopa2003@gmail.com; tolaopa2003@yahoo.com; tolaopa@isgpp.com.ng]