Generational Responsibility to Salvage Nigerian Civil Service

By Tunji Olaopa 

The African Public Service Day (APSD) is an annual programme already entrenched within the calendar of the African Union (AU), to be celebrated every June 23 of every year. It emerged in 1994 at the Conference for African Ministers for Public or Civil Service in Tangier, Morocco. Its objective is very simple: to outline the fundamental significance of the public service in the transformation of governance on the continent. Every year therefore, each country is supposed to domesticate the essence of the celebration to beam a critical light on how to raise the bar of the civil and public service professionalism and the capacity readiness to deliver on the promises of good governance on the continent. Indeed, the African Public Service Day celebration is a befitting reminder to the administrative axiom that the public service is the institutional bulwark that ensures the efficient delivery of democratic dividends to the citizens. The fundamental implication of this is that once the public administration fails, the entire democratic experiment fails. 

The reform and transformation of the public service system in Nigeria is essentially unfinished. Consequently, the urgency of the reform of the system is caught between two imperatives. The first is the unfolding dynamics of the Fourth Industrial Revolution around which the good governance of any state is securely tied. All good governance frameworks require the operational capacity generated by new technologies to become efficient. The public service is not least in this regard. The second imperative is democratic. One significance of democracy is to empower the citizens. Indeed, democratic governance demands the efficiency of a capacitated public service to deliver the dividends that will transform the lives of the citizens. 

One aspect of the elements of public service reform that I want to stress in this contribution has to do with relationship between the public administration professional community and the reform of the civil service system. The argument is that the community of service and practice has a fundamental role to play—indeed carries a burden of generational responsibility—in resuscitating the public service as a professional calling. Let me elaborate. After many years of consistent reform efforts, bad implementations and lack of constant political will to carry reform implementation through to its logical conclusion, the public service system still remains in a near comatose state of dysfunction. Its thriving bureaucratic culture has denied the profession of its vocational reputation. In the Nigerian public service, practically anything goes! The sense in which the system has been invaded by mediocre and charlatans with a strange and confounding mission and work culture which keep running down the vocational capital of the system. The system has unfortunately traded its professionalism for rent-seeking in the context of the politics that the Nigeria plays with the destiny of her citizens to be discerning enough to see the extent of degeneracy and rot. 

If we do a reality check, the overwhelming and incontestable evidence that condition public perception of public administration is that neither can government get the work of development done, nor are public institutions working. And the proliferation of private educational institutions, private security service providers, electricity distribution companies, etc. affirm this pervasive theory. Apart from the fact that government has gotten used to delivering on its policies and programs through a task force approach, and at that with the technical support of policy experts and consultants, governments, and indeed the public service, tend to look at implementation and service delivery as an afterthought, rather than as policy priority. This whole coping mechanism, and dependence by government on management consultants, think tanks and policy experts who deploy predominantly industry tested techniques and diverse concepts-rooted management tools to drive implementation dynamics and change management has certainly become an issue which require the public service to deepen institutional capacity for learning and skills transfer. 

The point here is that whereas there is no lack of ideas and expertise, but most of those inputs provided by consultants, without insider-experts collaboration, do hardly translate into deep enough contents and solutions to address first-hand, the issues and problems which governments in Nigeria are seeking for solution. Sadly, MDAs, in turn, lack appropriate skills to use these universal frameworks nor do they have overarching theory of change to guide the functional integration of the new tools, techniques and shared experiences and learning in the dynamics of MDAs’ programme and project management. Thus, making alignment between plans, strategies and implementation to be at best ad hoc, fragmented and incoherent

The bureau-pathology of the system has been deepened by the substitution of instant or immediate reward, deriving from the undermining of public service principles and rules, for deferred    gratification. The virtue of public service has been eroded by the need to make ends meet through corrupt means. This inevitably created the deep-seated moral deficit in work culture that supports the dysfunctional cultural fixation at the root of bureaucratic corruption. And it inevitably increases the degeneration of the value framework that upholds a selfless profession. Existential concerns to make ends meet instigate public servants to undermine the legacy potentials of a system that ought to be the bulwark of democratic governance. It is therefore so easy to see how the public service, through government and politicians’ reductionist thinking, could be politicized so much to the point of being mere lines and graphs in organizational and governance charts. In other words, no matter the earnest efforts of the government to reform the system, its dysfunction keeps solidifying. 

Albert Einstein once remarked that “the world as we created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” To recuperate the vocational essence of the public service, as essentially a spiritual calling—a professional space where only those with the training, orientation and discipline to create public value alone should be found—then, there is the need for out-of-the-box reflection that targets the communities of service and practice, and task them on how we got to where we are as a profession, and what we need to do to renegotiate the future.   

The public service is founded on a deep understanding of public-spiritedness. This is a virtue that differentiates the profession from a mere career trajectory. It renders the public service as a calling devoid of instrumental thinking or the vagaries of market dynamics. Public-spiritedness situates the responsibility of the public servant within the ambit of public accountability, and instigates her to an efficient, effective and equitable management of the civil service system. As an ethical frame, the public spirit ensures that the civil servant is not so preoccupied with the technical details of her responsibilities to the exclusion of their human concerns and the public trust. It is this deep-seated professional and vocational virtue that has been badly eroded. Most Nigerians now believe that the civil servants are the most corrupt professionals in the country. The profession therefore requires a fundamental rebranding and reprofiling through significant reform to increase its IQ, restore the public service cherished values and ethics, meritocracy-propelled professionalism and its stewardship relationship with the public—the very reason for its existence as a profession and management—if it would ever regain its prestige as the guardian of the democratic governance codes, institutional memory and continuity in governance. 

What are we doing to harness our collective strengths as bureaucrats, academics, researchers, development workers to give our profession the future it deserves? This question becomes important given the near-absence of any gatekeeping capacity for public administration and the public service in Nigeria. As one of the professions in Nigeria without a professional body charged with the responsibility of setting standards, maintaining codes of practice and keeping the intellectual contents of its knowledge pack at the cutting-edge of global administrative and governance developments, the public service is abjectly left without any institutional integrity that protects its sacred calling from infiltrators. The profession that the administrative pioneers built with so much candour, sacrifice, foresights and energy has thus been transformed into what will make them turn in their grave. 

This is the challenge, precisely. At independence, the public service was handed to Nigeria as a colonial legacy that could assist in the task of nation-building. The generations of pioneers and forebears who laid the foundation for this profession—Simeon Adebo, Jerome Udoji, Sule Katagum, Allison Ayida, Joseph Imoukhuede, Samuel Manuwa, Augustus Adebayo, and many more, struggled not only to retain the ethical and professional codes of the vocation, they handed over to us a formidable instrument for good governance (think about the great infrastructural transformation of the old Western Region, for instance), what excuse will this generation of public servants have for resting on our oars? What would we count as our institutional and administrative legacies? What, in other words, will be the civil service that we will be able to trumpet as the embodiment of our collective professional oversight for the coming generation to assess? What, with all the advantages of intellectual and professional education, creative and disruptive technologies, and the competences necessitated by the knowledge age we operated, will our generation be remembered for as our significant contribution to a profession with an undeniable future, relevance and possibilities? 

The first pioneering generation of public administrators and public servants had a sense of the enormity of the task ahead of them, and saw the significance of communities of service and practice as the context within which they could channel their collective efforts. This was the reason for the emergence of the National Association for Public Administration and Management (NAPAM) as a gatekeeping structure. It was clear to them that without a body that guards the cherished values and virtues of the professional, the task ahead would be daunting, if not impossible. NAPAM is meant to be the backbone for a community of practice that allows practitioners, students and scholars of public administration to share experience on the nature, challenges and future of administration in Nigeria. But with NAPAM dead and buried, vast and formidable body of public administration practitioners, scholars, researchers and development workers are left without a structural collective to channel their thoughts and action plans on the reform of the system and the profession. At a critical level, the gatekeeping responsibility of NAPAM involves a deep reflection on the image of public administration in Nigeria. This is defined by the need for a fundamental cultural change that will transform attitudinal and behavioral of public servants, which is the first step towards reinfusing the public service with the sense of public-spiritedness and professionalism that could deliver efficiency and productivity.  

Given the critical nature of the gatekeeping imperative towards reprofiling the public service brand, it becomes urgent for the convening of a public service reform conference. Let us take this as the first leg in not only the jumpstarting of the communities of service and practice to their urgent responsibility to public administration, but also opening up the space of administrative reform of the public service system beyond the public servants themselves. The conference will be broad-based not only in its composition but also objectives, ranging from a panoramic survey of past reform efforts, to a deep diagnosis of the dysfunctional dynamics of the public service and public administration in Nigeria, to multifaceted discourses on the directions for transformation. One critical objective of the conference is an animated discussion on the role of a national integrity system (NIS) as the framework within which to solidify institutional integrity, not just of the civil service, but all public services. The NIS constitutes a strategic structural framework for safeguarding important institutional reform and values, especially against the scourge of bureaucratic and political corruption. It facilitates a wide-ranging transformation of the work culture, grounded in a national value dynamic, which will check the tradition of immediate gratification which leads public servants to undermine public service efficiency and growth capabilities. 

The conference should serve as the marching order for the resuscitation and functional imperative of NAPAM and other communities of service and practice. This should include other platforms like the Conference of Retired Permanent Secretaries, states’ equivalent associations for heads of service, the academics and public administration scholars, researchers and department worker to initiate required conversation that will help us to regain the soul of the Nigerian civil service and reshape the future of the profession. This is the urgent imperative if the labor of our national and administrative heroes and heroines will not be in vain. 

The vision and strategy for where we want the civil service to be in the foreseeable future are not hard to craft. What is difficult is the will to push the vision to its logical conclusion by implementing its roughest details. Indeed, most visions have died because they had no good soil in reality to aid their survival. Going forward therefore, a key feature of new direction to transform the public service’s business model is applying corporate governance principles and structural changes to align operations to the growing frontiers of technology and e-governance, while at once mainstreaming new tools and techniques to reprofile MDAs’ standard operating systems as whole-of-government transformation initiatives. 

As part of instituting a new productivity paradigm in Nigeria therefore, there is the compelling need to take more serious the whole issues of policy implementation i.e., MDAs’ institutional capability readiness and result-orientation towards overall progress in the achievement of outcomes – financial and performance reporting, better annual reports, bottom-line reporting, quality of services reporting, outcome reporting, state of the public service reporting – much more than ever before. Besides, governments should no more be satisfied with mere reporting of efforts – motion without movement – to reform the public service and to transform it as pronounced at publicized events and through press statements. Rather, it should seek a cultural renewal in the public service and a rekindling of a sense of serving the public that is rooted in social compact-enhanced stewardship that is measurable and evidence-based. Capacity of public servants must be built to better understand and manage transaction costs, manage the different forms of risks in policy implementation; deploy capacity to better evaluate outcomes and to be savvy in managing collaborative partnerships and synergies like PPPs, and for better relationship management. They also need to be more skilled in tracking and managing projects when they drift from the intentions of government and objectives of policy.  

The emergence of the twenty-first century public service manager involves arming public managers with new competences that allow them to manage old and the news skills required to manage the new workplace and workforce. Beyond instituting a new performance management culture, the public service must develop a corporate governance policy in managing the expanding frontiers of public sector contractual relationships – grants to non-profit organizations, social impact bonds, PPPs. Making it urgent for the administrative leadership in the civil service to build required commercial, legal and regulatory skills to design and manage complex projects, skills for knowledge management and sharing, the incubation of social innovation around open government partnerships, training issues around results, citizens engagement through social media, crowdsourcing, ethnography, opinion research, branding and user data analytics. Essential to this new strategic intelligence central to the transformation in the nature of government which subscribing to Open Government Partnership enables. The public service should deepen institutional capability to utilize the fundamental benefits of the public-private partnership framework to strengthen its capability readiness to take on governance and policy challenges.

Transiting the public service to the next level in its change agenda demands serious work where all hands—political and bureaucratic—must be on deck. Whatever stage a public service system gets to in its administrative transformation, there is always more reform to be done to get the system always ready for more challenges, and the tasking demands of democratic governance.  

*Being excerpt from the 2022 African Public Service Day Lecture delivered by Prof. Tunji Olaopa, retired Permanent Secretary and Professor, National Institute of Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS), at the commemorative event organized by the Ekiti State Government and, to celebrate the retiring Head of Service, Mrs. Peju Babafemi, in Ado Ekiti Thursday

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