The Bureaucrat and Public Administration Scholarship

Winifred Oyo-Ita

By Tunji Olaopa

In this article, I will be leveraging on the time-honored distinction between theory and practice to interrogate the relationship that a bureaucrat, especially one in Nigeria, could have with the public administration scholarship anywhere in the world. This is a worthwhile endeavor for two reasons. The first is that usually, the bureaucrat is grounded within scholarship as the object of study. This one-sided examination makes the bureaucrat a mere object of study for public administration scholars. But the fundamental question is: What does the bureaucrat, in his or her own uniqueness as practitioner, brings to the understanding of administration scholarship? How does the bureaucrat insert him or herself in the dynamics of scholarship that seeks to characterize him or her as an object of study? The second reason why it is worthwhile to insert the bureaucrat into the theory-practice relationship is that there is the need to understand the context that throws up both theory and practice as a means by which we can adequately grasp their relationship, and therefore foreground the administrative contexts on such understanding. It is my staunch belief that it is the bureaucrat anywhere that stands at the interstice of what we think about administration and how we do it.

Only very few people, especially within the context of the third world of underdevelopment, will agree with Joseph Schumpeter that bureaucracy “is not an obstacle to democracy but an inevitable complement to it.” And this cynicism about the bureaucracy is often founded on an experiential account of how the public service has failed as the institutional template for realizing the hopes and the dividends of democracy. In fact, for those who encounter the public service as an absence, especially in a place like Nigeria, the public service as a bureaucracy, is not a complement to democracy but a patently pathetic manifestation of bad governance. Indeed, it is in the third world that the bureaucracy has earned its bad name of a huge structural mammoth that consumes overheads without a commensurate service to the public. In between the government and the governed, it is the bureaucracy that makes up the gap between what the government proposes in terms of policies and what the citizens enjoy in terms of the manifestations of good governance.

Yet, Schumpeter is right in his assessment of the bureaucracy as a complement to democracy. The very definition of a good government is founded on the public service institutional framework and the policy architecture that it helps to conceive and implement for the production of public goods and infrastructural benefits that the citizens are empowered with. The public service, in other words, is a most significant institutional element in any democratic government. The West is able to achieve its democratic status only because it has invested thoughts and governmental energies into reforming its public service as the complement of its democratic system.

The public service is the embodiment of the state and the government. And hence, the bureaucrat constitutes the public face of the government, good or bad. He or she is the one that the citizens encounter when the electricity bills are delivered at our doorsteps, when the taxes are calculated and exacted, when the roads are built, when the traffic warden stops your car and ask for the car particulars, when you go to register your land, birth or death deeds at the local government, and so on. It is the face of the state officials that you see when you register to vote, or when you take someone to court or you are summoned to appear before a judge. In administrative history, the face of the bureaucrat has metamorphosed according to changing historical and sociopolitical circumstances. In Nigeria, for instance, the representative of the colonial government was the white bureaucrat who is defined by his distance to the colonized Nigerians. However, after the euphoria of independence, the bureaucrats became people we are readily familiar with—uncles, sisters, friends, parents, colleagues. However, these public servants in a newly independent Nigeria were soon confronted with the hard realities of a postcolonial environment that dissociate professionalism from the hard task of making ends meet.

How then do we theorize the postcolonial bureaucrat? What does such a bureaucrat who is totally immersed in the real world of administration bring to the scholarship table? The first significant element is that the bureaucrat in a postcolonial Nigeria embodies a unique understanding of a very difficult administrative context. What does it mean to say, as it is said in the scholarship on the third world public administration, that Africa is the most difficult administrative terrain in the world? What does it mean for the Nigerian bureaucrat to exist and function (in)effectively in Nigeria? If the bureaucracy is to complement democracy, administrative context matters. And it is the bureaucrat that defines what it means not only to do administration but also what is required to do it efficiently. The personality of the bureaucrat in a context like Nigeria challenges the theory of administrative contexts in a manner that forces it to keep revising its theoretical assumptions, implications, logic and concerns.

The postcolonial bureaucrat becomes a living experiential encyclopedia of administrative nuances, knowledge, practices, alternatives and dynamics which any administrative textbooks would be hard pressed to ignore. Such a bureaucrat therefore invades the pages of the textbooks and the confines of scholarship either to enforce the articulation of a robust understanding of what public administration and its theories and practices entail. True, an average public servant may not understand theories. He may never have heard of Max Weber, Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Simon, the administrative complexities of General Motors, the rational choice theory or the new public management. But, the postcolonial bureaucrat is the custodian of the actually existing public service with its intrigues, power play, administrative complexities and sociopolitical dynamics.

The actually existing bureaucrat, as different from the abstracted entity that the public administration scholarship writes about, constitutes the best source of understanding for unraveling the three fundamental dichotomies that public administration is founded upon—administration-politics, state-society and public-private. It suffices to just take one as representative. Let us consider the state-society distinction. In the literature, the normal scholarship trajectory is to outline the unique features of each side of this divide and to interrogate the dynamics of their relationship with each other. However, what happens to our understanding once we throw in the embodied experience of the bureaucrat? How, in other words, does the Nigerian bureaucrat who lives in Abuja and works at the Presidency enable us to better explain and understand how the society and the state interact and influence or condition each other?

Abuja in Nigeria represents both state and society. It is both the seat of the government and state politics as well as the site of for the combustible interplay between ethnicity, religion and class dynamics. The average bureaucrat in the Presidency has to deal therefore with his or her status as an administrative element that must maneuver between the huge class deficit that makes the bureaucrat a mere low level personnel and the high income context within which he or she must operate. This is one side of the state-society divide. The second side of it is that the bureaucrat is also drawn into the charged interplay between the demands of politics and the imperatives of social demands which the citizens make on the government. This simply means that the bureaucrats contribute to the public administration scholarship in a deep and fundamental way by which we can unravel the complexities and the implications of the social contract.

Administrative scholarship will also benefit from interrogating the bureaucrat as the most important element in the understanding of the administrative functionality of the social contract in a democracy. This is because it is the bureaucrat that holds the key to how we translate policy choices and conceptions into policy implementation, management and evaluation. How does this enter into public administration scholarship? How, that is, can we begin to theorize the role of the bureaucrat in the emerging democratic experiment of Nigeria?

The bureaucrats have often been seen as the black sheep of any government. They are often the fall guys especially since they are the ones that the public confronts, engages and vilifies. Yet, public administration owes democracy a real duty of expounding on the real life challenges and experiences of the “street level” and “management level” bureaucrats as a way of truly making the bureaucracy a complement to democracy. Public administration scholarship can no longer ignore the complex experiences of the bureaucrats. This is because democracy owes its very life to how scholarship theorizes the context of functionality within which the bureaucrat operates, and how that context defines how we treat the bureaucrat in return. It is therefore time for the public servant to be reborn in the true light of experiential theorizing which the core of action and policy research.

* ‘Tunji Olaopa is a retired Federal Permanent Secretary and Professorof Public Administration ( ;