Can Civil Service Profession Be Saved from Politics?

By Tunji Olaopa

My recent attempt to explore the intersection of politics and policy making sparked considerable interest among regular interlocutors of my contributions. These incidentally were not just public administration scholars and public servants, but from the wider network of enlightened readers. And whereas I had written on the issue of how politics shape public administration profession and practice in earlier contributions, the concern in this piece is not different. It is to deepen the conversation on perhaps the dominant issue in the crisis of the Nigerian bureaucracy i.e. the issue of the politicization of civil service governance which reached its height in the 1975/76 purge, but that had since not abated, and the whole question of whether the civil service could be saved from politics. In spite of my spirited attempt to make this very intelligible to non-professionals, this essay cannot but take a seminal tone. This is because, given the experts audience for which this note was written, it was inevitable that we will come in contact with a rather stimulating meshing of the theoretical and the practical in ways that bears untangling.

The title of this piece therefore calls on a historico-administrative analysis that delves into the founding and conception of the civil service as a profession, and how those first principles have been molded and moderated by the specific and peculiar sociopolitical contexts of different states of the world. This becomes all the more interesting when the civil service is situated within the context of postcoloniality. Most scholars of administration in Africa know that the continent bears the unsalutary reputation of being the most difficult administrative context in the world. And this reputation seems well deserved in the sense that most African states are underperforming due to the lackluster capacity readiness of their public administration systems. How then do we make sense of this terrible situation? In other words, in what ways can we begin to unravel the relationship between the civil service and the disenabling politics that backstops underdevelopment in Africa?

The state anywhere is an abstract concept that is given a face by the idea of the government and the public/civil service. It is through the activities of the armed forces, the inland revenue officials, the waste management system, the educational boards, the ports authority, and so on, that we encounter the state and its activities. Thus, the bureaucracy is the administrative machinery that keeps the engine of the government running. It is in this sense that the bureaucracy becomes significantly fundamental to the success or failure of any government. We then make our title clearer through the fact that the bureaucracy is not usually immune from the dynamics of politics that reigns in any particular state.

The politics-administration distinction is the most fundamental dichotomy that signaled the emergence of the bureaucracy into the modern consciousness. The essence of the distinction is to shield the unique vocation of the bureaucracy from the ravages of politics. This is despite the critical fact that it is the sophistication of the political leadership that determines the climate for the professionalism and capability readiness of the civil service at every point in time. The crucial point is to shield the bureaucracy from any unnecessary politicization that will undermine its efficiency and performance profile. The politician and the public servant have their own unique remit even though they are bound together in policy design and implementation.

The historical altercation between Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany and his Chancellor and chief public servant, Otto von Bismarck, brings to life not only the origin of the administrative dichotomy, but also the crucial issues involved in the attempt to politicize the public service. The conflict ensued over the strong views that Bismarck had over Germany’s foreign and domestic policies which were stronger than those of the Emperor. The latter then strong-armed his Chancellor into a dismissal from his post, but then the Emperor was then faced with a bureaucratic officialdom that led to the invasion of Emperor’s cabinet in ways that eventually undermined his government.

It was Max Weber’s critical observations of this conflict that led to his determination to theorize the basis of the relationship between the politician and the public servant as an ideal type. In order to be genuinely apolitical, Weber theorized the need to circumscribe the public servant within a legal-rational process that determines the duties and responsibilities of the public servant and under what conditions the authority could be legally exercised. It is therefore the bureaucracy that establishes the stability, founded on continuity, of any government. Politicians just come and go. From Weber’s perspective, therefore, the bureaucracy is insulated within a layer of technocratic details and procedures that determine recruitment, professionalism and duty of the public servant, but also allow the policy process—from conception to design and implementation—to become as seamless as possible. Unfortunately, no aspect of human life can escape politics. Despite the effort by Weber to create a unique bureaucratic persona defined by a different mentality, the public service is still determined by politics.

Weber’s distinction between “living for politics” and “living from politics” provides a unique framework that allows us to adapt this reflection to the Nigerian administrative condition. This distinction mirrors the dichotomy between politics and administration. Living for or from politics applies both to the politicians as well as the public servants. Both could either make politics the instrument for pursuing a cause or for earning an income. The point however is that both are not mutually exclusive. One can live for and from politics. An apolitical bureaucrat can benefit from politics. The American spoils system represents a sort of civil service system that seeks to ingratiate political patronage within a meritocratic public service. In order not to jeopardize the merit system, the spoils dynamics was integrated into the selection of the senior echelon of the public service while the junior cadre was left to the determination of merit.

The immediate danger however is that opening up the civil service to politics, contrary to the politics-administration dichotomy, makes it difficult to prevent the corruption of the neutrality of the public servant. Power corrupts. And the postcolonial administrative experiences of the Nigerian state bear this out. The fact that the politics-administration distinction is not always a water-tight one is borne out by the 1988 Civil Service Reform which was backed by the Civil Service Reorganisation Decree No. 43 of the same year. Of course, the objective of the reform was the establishment of a virile, dynamic and result-oriented civil service. Unfortunately, the attempt to professionalize the elite corps of the civil service had a negative effect in that it led to the political appointment of permanent secretaries as director-generals. This also led to a rather abrupt turnover of very strong officers in whom a lot has been invested in terms of training. Ordinarily, the recommendation for the recruitment of a permanent secretary and other public servants ought to come through the head of service and the civil service commission respectively. And such recruitments are made in terms of technical competency in policy development, leadership management, and other core bureaucratic knowledge. However, these key issues are undermined once politics and the consideration for patronage are brought in.

Politics, especially the bad politics at work in most African states, erodes the very basis of the public service as a special calling. As a vocation, the public service is circumscribed by a public-spiritedness that is similar to the Levitical calling of the priests in the Bible. Such a calling comes with a level of professionalism founded on a competency-based human resources management and action-molding values—ethical values (i.e. integrity, honesty, respect); democratic values (i.e. responsiveness, representativeness, rule of law); and professional values (i.e. excellence, innovation). Bad politics leads to bad development. And bad politics is one that not only is motivated by an extractive and primitive accumulation logic, but also undermines developmental values like meritocracy. The Nigerian clientelist system is not as sophisticated as the US spoils system that recognizes the place of meritocracy in the performance culture of the civil service. But such a recognition is not alien to the Nigerian administrative history. With the Awolowo-Adebo model, we catch a historical glimpse of a transformational political-bureaucratic leadership that was modeled on the Weberian dream of politics-administration dichotomy. As a politician, Chief Awolowo understood the dynamics of the political terrain. And he asked Chief Adebo to leave that to him, so he could concentrate on the challenges of implementing the policies generated by the politicians. And this worked!

This type of transformational leadership is anchored on a change management sense that recognizes the critical role of reform in making the public service relevant for the transformation of the state in the twenty-first century. The fundamental question is: how do we make the public service ethically compliant, technology-based, professionally situated and efficient for the challenges of a twenty-first century postcolonial state like Nigeria? The answer lies in an institutional reform programme that transforms the old Weberian civil service system into an entrepreneurial and flexible one with the transformational capacity to operate in a knowledge society. The most relevant example that has appealed to my reform experience is that of Margaret Thatcher’s charismatic commitment to relocating the institutional capacity of the British civil service away from the old, “I am directed” and Weberian public administration to a more modern pathway after 1979. Before then, the British civil service had become what was called a “great rock in the tideline” due to its disenabling bureaucratic culture. In other to make sense of the 1968 Fulton Report that proposed a managerial revolution, Thatcher had invited Lord Rayner, Chairman and MD of Marks and Spencer to provide the change leadership. It was Thatcher’s political willingness to push the implementation of the institutional reform to its logical conclusion that led to her hardline stance, especially in her bid to amend the British labour law in ways that undermine its adversarial industrial dispute clauses in ways that enhance productivity. We can therefore say that Margaret Thatcher was willing to carry the burden of being tagged an “Iron Lady” for the sake of her conviction in institutional reform of the civil service system as a foundation of good governance.

The Thatcher example points our attention to the transformation of the productivity profile of the Nigerian economy as the single most significant premise for the reform of her civil service. And this speaks to reform initiatives around the civil service commission, the industrial labour law, the pay and compensation dynamics, and also the trimming of the workforce as a means of undermining the cost of governance burden. Institutional reform is a necessity. But only a courageous political leadership can go through with its complexity. This is the only way that politics can enhance the capacity readiness of the public service in Nigeria.

  • Prof. Tunji Olaopa is a Retired Federal Permanent Secretary & Professor of Public Administration, National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS), Kuru (

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