Omoigui-Okauru Recounts Leadership Lessons from FIRS

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IFUEKO OMOIGUI-Okauru

Obinna Chima

A former Executive Chairman of the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS), Mrs. Ifueko Omoigui-Okauru at the weekend recounted how she drove transformation at the national revenue collection agency.
She also said she was looking forward to a future where taxes would become the pillar of popular engagement in the democratic process and pivot of Nigerian national development.

Delivering the Africa Initiative for Governance (AIG) 2020 Annual Public Lecture, with the theme: “Transforming the Public Sector in Nigeria: Lessons from my Leadership of the FIRS,” Omoigui-Okauru, highlighted the reforms initiated under her leadership at the agency.

Mr. Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede is the founder and chairman of the AIG.
The former IFRS boss who is presently the 2019/2020 AIG Visiting Fellow of Practice at the Blavatnik School of Government, extolled former President Olusegun Obasanjo and his team, who identified, gave her the opportunity and stood by her, despite her young age and without any experience working in the public sector.

“What I believe I had going was a track record that would come to play in a new role. I also thank all the other Presidents I worked with after President Obasanjo left office – President Umar Yaradua and President Goodluck Jonathan – for believing in my service and keeping me in office. Continuity matters. If my stay had been interrupted, my story may be different. Passing the baton, not allowing it fall, and making the race after faster and even better than the last, is for me, a critical success factor in the delivery of public service,” she said.

She said public officers must always demonstrate readiness for the job, determination, adding that how they embrace their subordinates matter in keeping them focused on achieving the goals set.
If you are not ready for a job, become ready and wait until you are or don’t take it, if you truly want to achieve an impact, she stressed.

“Be ready to always challenge your thinking, listen, reflect, communicate to your diverse stakeholders and stay focused on serving all of your stakeholders even when you risk been misunderstood – keep learning but keep communicating,” the former FIRS advised those eyeing public service.

“I was exhausted at the end of my tenure and needed a break from anything public service. Now, I am encouraged a lot more to tell the story of what we did, achieved and our challenges, fueled by the people I meet every day,” she added.
According to her, when she joined the FIRS, it had about 7,200 staff (80% of which were non-professional staff), describing the agency then as a mini-Nigeria which was diverse in location, gender, age, creed, ethnicity et al.

Omoigui-Okauru pointed out that the only recognised professional cadre within the service then was that of tax administration, saying all other positions were either filled from the Federal Civil Service – Legal, Finance and Admin (HR) functions were filled by staff from on a rotational basis; or junior staff hired by the service for clerical and other work.

“Eight years later, FIRS had about 7,000 (80% of which were professional staff), located in every State of the Federation and the Federal Capital Territory. To be a professional in the service, you had a career path in different functional areas beyond just Tax Administration, to include Tax Research and Policy, Communications, Facility Management, Finance, HR, ICT, Legal, Security amongst others. With this, not just where we self-sustaining, we were also able to align staff to their areas of best fit.

“This opened up vacancies in the service, with over 2,000 people created through open advertisement, testing and interviews to take advantage of the new positions created. We developed a culture over time, where we encouraged the use of technology, removing the need for secretaries, removed symbolic computers on the desks of senior officers, and managed the fears people to even open up computers that were readily made available.”

According to Omoigui-Okauru, under her leadership, the FIRS redefined tax administration by giving staff an opportunity to cross-learn and grow as well empowered to see themselves as beyond just working in the FIRS, but possessing skills that could be attested to within or outside the service; within or outside Nigeria.

“The organisation structure was designed to build tax administration capacity across all the typical functions in preparedness for automation. We repeatedly encouraged staff through the various meetings and sessions we had, to be self-confident, believe in themselves, their abilities and with that, the sky wasn’t even a limit.

“We had non-professional staff eager to go back to school or to do professional exams, supported by the Service to improve themselves, and succeeding. We had people empowered to take decisions through policies and a decision-making matrix clarifying their authorities. We gave people confidence through amongst others the rebranding (in form and deed) of the Service and the improved compensation and performance driven bonuses paid; people were proud to wear the badge of the organisation.

“The general public and taxpayers acknowledged the changes. It was easier to pay their taxes through the one stop shop and electronic channels created. They had confidence in having people to report to if they had any issues. Taxpayers were better educated on their responsibilities and their rights. Taxpayers saw evidence that if a tax officer is caught in a fraudulent act, penalties will be imposed and in certain cases convictions obtained.

“We encouraged the youth to get involved through our Students Tax Advocacy Initiative (STAI) initiative. Today, some have chosen a professional career in tax because of the work of STAI,” she added.
Speaking further, she said during the wave of reforms at the FIRS, the only goal was to triple non-oil revenues by 2007, and grow overall revenues by 25 per cent year on year.

We focused on the achievement of set goals at every meeting with staff and stakeholders, she said, adding that the target guided her team then at the FIRS.
“We could measure, track and reflect on why the targets were met or not met. We had a three-year rolling strategic plan that drove our reform efforts through. A plan that involved all staff, getting their views on where we were, where we wanted to be and how to get there.

“A plan that clearly set out our vision, mission, values and goals. A plan that got the Federal Executive Council under the leadership of the trigger for all these efforts, President Olusegun Obasanjo, to hold a special meeting for the first time, on October 2004, focused on one agenda – approving the tax reform plan, in the first year of our efforts, and first year of my tenure.

“A plan we tracked at every management, regional and stakeholder meeting. Meetings that lasted hours on end, engaged in debates and conversations to ensure inclusion and ensure we carried everyone along. Meetings staff complained about as too long, but which eventually delivered what we wanted them to. Plans that we cascaded to every department and individual and formed the basis of performance bonuses that were paid to deserving departments and individuals.”

Continuing, she said: “These steps typically touted as needed to drive change, worked within the FIRS, a then unknown civil service institution that transformed to becoming an esteemed agency of the public service during my tenure.
“From day one, my mindset that drove the change efforts I embarked upon, was to see this as an opportunity to bring development to Nigeria. It was about restructuring the organisation and bringing a sense of purpose to every single staff.

“I was driven by years of experience in leading strategic planning and change management engagements, that placed in me an unchanging belief of the importance of inclusion and buy-in and alignment across the organisation as critical to organisational success; sincerely carrying everyone along a journey of developing a clear roadmap that everyone understood and executing same in a disciplined manner; recognising the importance of people in the landscape of change and that without the people on the side of change, very little can be achieved.

“I was also driven by my inbuilt sense of personal sacrifice, built over time from my very early years, to disregard self and focus on the results expected by those around me. All these influenced, how I started my journey at the FIRS; seeking the opinions of others about the change desired; developing a roadmap for change and getting the buying of all stakeholders in the roadmap.”