Nigeria at 60: Reforming the Civil Service Reform

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By Tunji Olaopa

This is the week of Nigeria’s 60th Independence celebration. There are four fundamental events and issues in Nigeria’s post-independence journey that have shaped the growth dynamic of the civil service in Nigeria. The first was the bloody civil war that inflicted a terrible blow on the national integration project. The second and third national events were the many years of military intervention in politics, and the oil boom and it’s the consequences for a resource-cursed nation. Significantly, these led to a debilitation of Nigeria’s institutional base in a way that affected her development capacity and drive. The final event took place in 1999, and it was the inauguration of democratic governance in Nigeria. After many years of military rule, democracy was breath of fresh governance air for Nigerians.

But then, through all these major events in Nigeria’s historical evolution, the civil service has played a huge and defining role. Through the dedicated and focused commitment of the bureaucratic leadership, the public service was significant in seeing Nigeria through the civil war, and in laying the framework for the rehabilitation of the Nigerian society after the war. There was therefore a recognition by succeeding Nigerian leadership and administrations that the civil service system is fundamental to the success of energizing the social contract that would enable the government to transform the lives and well-being of Nigerians for the better. And so, since independence, each administration had been concerned with significant reform exercises targeted at eliminating the bureaucratic bottlenecks in the public service, and instituting a managerial and entrepreneurial culture that will make the public service system functionally and efficiently optimal in delivering democratic goods and services.

The reform breakthroughs from independence till date revolved around the following: Management by Objectives (MBO)/Project Management/Programme and Performance Budgeting System (PPBS) by the Udoji Commission; professionalized and specialized civil service, by the Philips Commission; permanent secretary as a career appointment/reinstatement of the Civil Service Commission/Organization, Operations and Management Research (OOMR) Unit (Ayida Review Panel); MDA restructuring/SERVICOM/ IPPIS/ standard chart of accounts cum GIFMIS/pension reform/monetization of fringe benefits/anticorruption initiative/creation of the Bureau of Public Service Reform (BPSR); development of the National Strategy for Public Service Reform (NSPSR) and successor strategy documents. The Tenure Policy, a precursor to performance management that, perhaps, came ahead of it’s time. We therefore need to acknowledge that the Nigerian public service system has made some tremendous progress (that have unfortunately not added up) due to the assiduous commitment of succeeding Nigerian governments since independence.

This is another independence celebration, and a landmark one at that. And so, it calls for a huge reflection on how far Nigeria’s democratic governance has been able to jumpstart development objectives through an efficient public service system. In other words, is the Nigerian public service delivering efficient services translating into infrastructural development? Has it been able to adequately and effectively raise the productivity profile of the Nigerian state to a qualitative high? Is the service itself getting more professional, knowledge-driven, transparent and accountable? These are very fundamental questions that speak to the cumulative achievements of the reforms of the public service in Nigeria. One way to critically interrogate the success of the administrative reforms in Nigeria, since independence therefore, is to determine the extent to which they have accumulated into a body of quality transformation of the system and into an efficient machinery for managing complex policies with significant welfare dividends. This is where our assessment breaks down. Life is still very difficult for Nigerians. And we have very little to celebrate, for once, since the first independence celebration in 1960. This means we are still in the middle of nowhere. We still have the same set of administrative and institutional challenges confronting us year in and year out.

To hit the nail on the head: the Nigeria reform efforts have been considerable and well-intentioned. But it is enormously lacking in its focus on the root-cause analysis of what is truly wrong with the public service system since independence. Why has all the reform effort not led to an efficient public service? In essence, there is a need to reform the reform through root-cause analyses that aim at hitting at the origin or source of the problem. And in this case, the question is why is the public service system still inefficient.

One fundamental response to this question is that since independence, and for sixty years, we have failed to get the basics of reforming the public service right. The truth is that most of the public sector reforms have not been successful in creating a new public service that Adebo in 1971 and Udoji in 1974 envisioned, for a range of reasons. One, most of the reforms to date have focused more on symptoms, such that recommendations place too much emphasis on the initial evidence of something that has gone wrong. Consequently, the issue of why, over time, the same problems come up again and again suggests that the root causes of the problems have not been adequately investigated, analyzed and addressed. These are invariably a mix of the systemic and the Nigeria factors demanding deep-rooted reengineering and culture change. Besides, due to poor policy and research function and culture of seminal interrogation of deep issues in the public service, in turn a reflection of a chronic culture of anti-intellectualism that treats rigorous solutions as theoretical, most reform programmes merely implement developed countries’ reform models as advised by the World Bank, IMF of this world, and private consulting firms. Most of these invariably fail conception-reality tests. Besides, unreflective importation of best practices fails to recognize that there is really no ideal benchmark to use in changing the performance of public institutions that invariably requires creative reinvention based on their internal logic.

Other challenges are legion. There are recurring incidences of appointing ineffective leaders for the civil service, and absence of metrics to hold them accountable, with the top leadership in the Nigerian public service remaining one of the very few left in the world today, that are not held against performance agreements and scorecards. There is of course the whole issues of expenditure management issues and resource optimization in the public sector, a symptom of poor and compromised internal control and general lack of capacity and skills within Finance and Human Resource management departments. Besides, tracking of infractions responds only to whistleblowing and petitions, such that there are really few consequences when regulations are contravened in the main. It is a shame really that reports of the Auditor-General in Nigeria are just loud noise that receive virtually no attention through processing and enforcement vide the vigilance of the comatose if not dead Public Accounts Committee of the National Assembly. This is the reason that only cases usually being ostensibly investigated by EFCC, ICPC, Code of Conduct, and all are evidences of public sector accountability; and they are usually conducted in media glare for effect.

Going forward, performance management requires a combination of culture change and competency and capacity building. These are critical factors in the imperative of re-engineering the inner mechanism of the public service. And there is no time that the urgency of these reform dynamics is required than now as we gradually move into the new normal of a post-COVID-19 world. It is not just sufficient to focus attention on retooling and re-skilling the public servant. There is also a significant role for ensuring that the workplace functions according to specific cultural and ethical norms and ethos that define public spiritedness and professionalism. This involves three levels of values: ethical values (i.e. integrity, honesty, respect); democratic values (i.e. responsiveness, representativeness, rule of law); and professional values (i.e. excellence, innovation, anonymity, transparency, merit). It is the function of a competency-based HR to integrate these values into its recruitment, career management and training frameworks and protocols. Strategic human resource management is key to addressing the problems of under-performance and over-staffing. Indeed, it is through a competency-based HR situated in each MDA and supervised by Heads of Service and the Civil Service Commissions that the public service can ever hope to inaugurate the emergence of “new professionals” competent enough to man the new public service in Nigeria oriented towards the new administrative normal in a knowledge age.

The new public service required in Nigeria must also be founded on a better appreciation of modern technologies and a redoubled deeper digital penetration level that will become the foundation for an open government process. More than ever before, the new normal administrative system we envision must operate as a Public Service 2.0—a system that is in tune with the imperative of a knowledge society and its defining technologies that are meant to make the system more efficient, flexible to customer satisfaction and transparent in its service delivery mandate. The public service can also be re-oriented through a reprofiled national planning framework that facilitates a synergy between MDA planning and the national planning stream and that are evidence-based. Each MDA must be enabled to recognize the day-to-day planning initiative it must undertake such as: Planning in response to gaps in estimated, appropriated and actual budget releases; planning in response to new perceptible thrust in government policy which could be incidental; planning with regards to changing role of MDAs due to technology expansion and new performance-oriented business model; operational planning to translate high-level objectives into practical implementation strategies and activities; planning derived from shared responsibilities with other MDAs/sectors to deliver specified outcomes; and planning based on indication and feedback from M&E.

Lastly, there is a point at which efficiency and productivity are co-dependent on the management of waste and redundancy. The proliferation of agencies, departments, parastatals and other government institutions has led to overlaps, fragmentation, blurred accountability and wasted resources. This has led to an over-bloated workforce which allows for so many people doing so little and so little doing the significant work, with the system virtually dependent on expensive consultants’ technical support. Attention to waste and redundancy will enable the evolution of a national maintenance culture and a redundancy management framework that will not only allow deadwoods to be downsized with appropriate post-retirement considerations and benefits, but also allow new talents to be recruited with significant incentives and adequate and regular retraining. And all these reform insights must be factored into a strategic and highly calibrated implementation plan and change management strategy, or else they all will fizzle out into the nothingness of wasted reform efforts.

Sixty years is a significant length of time to arrive at where we are. But moving progressively forward requires deeper thoughts and even deeper reform strategies that will ensure that for the next sixty years, Nigeria does not find itself confronting the same administrative and institutional challenges again and again. Rather, Nigerians deserve a better governance deal. And a new and efficient public service with its sight on getting the basic rights is the most fundamental step in the right direction.
*Prof. Tunji Olaopa is s retired Federal Permanent Secretary & Professor of Public Administration, National Institute For Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS), Kuru, Jos (tolaopa2003@gmail.com tolaopa@isgpp.com.ng)