Key Drivers of Change (III): Public Service Reform Conference


The success of the democratic experiment in Nigeria depends on the capacity of the Nigerian state to achieve a fundamental reform of the public service. And this is because the public service constitutes the institutional framework that translates democratic policies into an efficient service delivery mechanism that delivers democratic dividends to the citizens. Specifically, the public service is the instrumental pivot around which the Nigerian state can deal with its infrastructural deficit in terms of electricity, good road network, education, good healthcare system, etc. In other words, it is only through a sufficiently capacitated and efficient public service that the government of the day is able to transform good policies into infrastructural dynamics that spells socioeconomic development in a state.

This assertion simply refocuses our attention on the crucial significance of the institution of the public service in Nigeria, and the urgent need to get back on track with the reform of its base fundamentals. This is one of the reasons why successive Nigerian governments since 1999 have focused on reforming the public service as a critical plank in their socioeconomic blueprint for transforming the Nigerian society.

The euphoria that greeted the Buhari administration and its change slogan has gradually been whittled down by the protracted economic recession which has affected every aspect of Nigeria’s society, from banking to the ordinary markets. Change is a complex phenomenon. It is subject to all manners of variables that could transform its intended objective negatively or positively. As far as I am concerned, the possibility of a change dynamics that would transform the architecture of democratic governance under Buhari has not been defeated. But this is not to be blind to the temporal limitation to the present administration. With just about two years to go for the government, a lot needs to be done to transform Nigeria’s socioeconomic fortunes. Certainly, there is a whole lot of spirited effort by current policy makers, but the impacts are not decisive enough to be felt by the rank and file. And without mincing words, I am certain that a direct and committed investment into the reform of the public service constitutes one of the administration’s tops and surest legacy point.

Given the evidence of administrative history in Nigeria, the Buhari administration can no longer ignore the imperative of a decisive public service reform intervention which elements could crystallize at not just a focused conference, but a spirited implementation of a civil service performance improvement programme with an immediate, short and medium-term change components. The conference bit which this piece addresses, will be a high-powered democratic summit of all the significant stakeholders in the task of good governance in Nigeria.The essence of such a conference would be to outline a strategic framework of action that could be distilled quickly from numerous existing technical papers, strategy documents, research findings, official reports and White Papers with inevitable gaps addressed within the framework of change management strategy. The mission will be to beef up the public service capability readiness to become strategic partner in delivering the much desired change in most cost effective manner given current fiscal crisis and with passion that is matched with a critical mix of strategic, tactical and operational skills and competences through evidence-based targeted technical support to MDAs.

Since independence, successive Nigerian governments have assiduously worked on one form of reform dynamics or the other to deliver on government promises to the citizens. Each government brands a new governance reform initiative that will intervene positively in the lives of Nigerians. But at no point in Nigeria’s administrative history has the public service system risen to the challenge of good governance.

This is a difficult claim, but its truth can be defended. What is often celebrated today in the public service history as the golden age of administration in Nigeria are clear regional public service initiatives, the most famous of which is the Western Region Civil Service dynamics under Chief Simeon Adebo. The Awolowo-Adebo administrative model throws up a politician-bureaucrat relationship framework that truly facilitated the transformation of the Western region in terms of the seamless manner in which policies mutated into infrastructural achievements. The other story of administrative achievement has to do with the famous “super permanent secretaries” and the administrative exploits that held Nigeria together after the tragic horror of the Nigerian Civil War.What the exploit of the super permanent secretaries proved was simply that the Nigerian public service has the capacity to rise up to any challenge of emergency and change with an intelligent administrative leadership, the sense in which Bob Garratt argues that the fish gets rotten from the head.

Thus, between the successes of the Western region civil service and the post-civil war Nigerian civil service, we have been given a hint into what the civil service system in Nigeria can achieve if properly primed to succeed. And yet, despite the strings of genuinely crafted reform initiatives from 1954 till date, the public service is still struggling to make a significant democratic impact on the lives of Nigerians.

A public service reform conference will have the objective of surveying the trajectory of administrative reforms since 1954, and distilling its high and low points, its insights and shortcomings, and the possibilities involved in engaging those insights within the context of transforming the public service, within the vision of a public service “delivering government policies and programmes with professionalism, excellence and passion.” This advocacy for the public service reform conference is grounded on the opening up of the governance space in a manner that will enable the participation of non-state and non-governmental actors to participate in the crafting of genuine programmatic intervention strategies for implementing public service reforms.

The most immediate challenge confronting such a proposed conference is that of how the existing blueprints on public service reform in Nigeria, deriving from fourteen reform initiatives from 1954, could be harnessed into a formidable strategic framework that would transform the public service into an efficient and professional institution that can backstop democratic imperatives in Nigeria. In one important respect, the conference cannot succeed without some antecedent conditions. I identify three urgent administrative protocols. The first is the revitalization of the National Association of Public Administration and Management (NAPAM) as the focal point of a community of practice and service that will provide a link between academics, practitioners and the public on administrative issues in theory and practice. It is within the context of such a community of practice that (a) the issues—short-, medium- and long-term—involved in calibrating the change agenda for reforming the public service can be properly outlined and presented; and (b) the critical mass of stakeholders required for the conference would be identified and mobilized.

The second pre-condition, following on the first, is the setting up of a national monitoring protocol, within the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), that benchmarks, monitors and evaluates administrative progress in the MDAs with appropriate sanctions and rewards. And the last institutional protocol that must be in place is a national integrity system (NIS). The NIS in any state constitutes a strategic structural framework for safeguarding important institutional reform and values, especially against the scourge of bureaucratic and political corruption. The deeper aim of the NIS is to facilitate a wide-ranging transformation of the work culture, grounded in a national value dynamics, which will check the tradition of immediate gratification which leads public servants to undermine public service efficiency and growth capabilities.

While the APRM constitutes the framework for benchmarking global and African best practices, the NIS constitutes the ethical framework for ensuring that reforms are not undermined from within the very institution to be reformed.

Good governance is serious business especially if a state must justify its democratic credentials. A public service reform conference would be saddled with an agenda that seeks to reinvent the dynamics of public service reform in Nigeria through getting the fundamentals of such reforms right, from conception to implementation and the management of the reform. The objective is the establishment of a new public service that could backstop the change agenda of government. This will involve an agenda item, for instance, that interrogates the adequacy of the traditional Weberian system for the conduct of government business. In global administrative practice, there is some sort of consensus on the significance of a neo-Weberian administrative system that combines the solidity of the various elements of the Weberian bureaucracy that are still relevant with the flexibility and leanness of the managerial public service. The conference would critically interrogate the suitability of such a hybrid administrative system for a postcolonial context like Nigeria.

The conference would also determine the national requirements that could facilitate or hinder the professionalisation of the public service. This is very critical, if the history of the Nigerianisation Policy is anything to go about. Given the plural status of the Nigerian state, it seems critical for the lawmakers, in the immediate post-independence period, to substitute representativeness for merit. But that unfortunate decision not only bloated the public service and eroded professionalism, but it also led to the improperly managed 1975 purge of the civil service which equally eroded the value of public spiritedness. With professionalism and public spiritedness gone, the public service was already in an abject free-fall from which it has been trying to rescue itself. But then, we are still confronted with the critical dichotomy between representativeness (enshrined in the national character matrix) and meritocracy. Thus, the pertinent question: how can the public service reflect the diversity of the Nigerian state without ever compromising the non-negotiable value of merit as the foundation of a professional new public service?

That the public service is itself floundering within the context of an economic recession is an unfortunate demonstration of the administrative plight of Nigeria. This is because the public service ought to be at the forefront of a change management offensive, complemented by other governance reform frameworks, that is constantly exploring means and exploiting ways by which Nigeria would stay ahead of any challenge to its development profile. If, however, the government is humble enough, the public service reform conference would be a solid statement about its willingness to arrest the steadily diminishing political goodwill in order to set the administration in the right direction of genuine change.

––Dr. Tunji Olaopa is the Executive Vice-Chairman Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (;