Seven Tips for New Political Appointees

Postscript by Waziri Adio

Yesterday, I was in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, to discuss my book, “The Arc of the Possible,” with an impressive mix of secondary school students and the professionals and the political elites of the city. The event was organised by “The August Meeting,” a group keen on deepening the reading culture as a way of strengthening leadership capacities in Rivers and beyond, led by the amiable and cerebral Kingsley Wali. The event reinforced for me that we still have reasons to be hopeful about Nigeria.

In preparation for the event, I flipped through my book, a memoir of the five years I spent as the head of a federal government agency. The book was published by Cable Books two years ago. Recently, I have read some generous references to the book based on the actions of some of President Bola Tinubu’s political appointees. That is gratifying. Today, I am sharing a few tips excerpted from different sections of the book. It is my hope that current and future appointees, as well as the appointive authorities and others interested in better governance in Nigeria, will find them useful.    

Embrace the value of making haste slowly: “The received wisdom is that newly elected or appointed office holders should leap into action on assumption of office. This is to signal their readiness, telegraph a sense of urgency, and energise those they are going to be working with. It is, ordinarily, a good piece of advice. However, there are times when haste should be made very slowly. Sometimes, it is good to take a deliberate pause, take some time to see what is there, compare the reality on ground to the assumptions held from the outside, and reflect deeply on all of these before deciding on what to do, and how. The race can commence after that. Running a government or a ministry or an agency is a marathon, not a sprint. Therefore, understanding the lay of the land and having an appropriate strategy to cover the distance may be more useful than yielding to the impulse to just dash off at the blast of the whistle.”

Clarity on values and legacy will serve you well: “As they set out, political appointees need to ensure they have clarity in two important areas. The first is about values, being clear about what matters, and where the boundaries are. Life comes so fast at people in public office, and not having clarity about where the lines are would leave most public officials very vulnerable in a very permissive environment where the most common lines are: ‘it is allowed’, ‘it is standard’, ‘everyone does it,’ ‘it is just to motivate your people’ and ‘this is Nigeria, you need to help your people’. If you get into government without a clear idea about your values, it is very unlikely you will come out with one. This level of clarity is also important about what you want your legacy to be. Though not everyone would have the same level of lucidity on the first day, it is still important to spend some time thinking about the end even before stepping out.

“There will be so many things to do, especially in terms of paperwork and meetings, that it is easy to get sucked into the motion of it all. But having a clear idea about where and how you want to make the difference helps with focus and discipline. However, such clarity must be backed by an appropriate strategy and diligent execution.”

Familiarise yourself with rules and processes: “Government is largely about rules and processes that define the scope of what is possible and sometimes constrain action. Violating these rules and processes not only undermines the effectiveness of office holders but can also lead to embarrassment, scandals, dismissals, and prosecutions even. Good intention or ignorance or the fact that no money is stolen is never an excuse. Political appointees, who for good reasons are largely drawn from outside of the civil service, become incapacitated or get into trouble for not understanding these rules or for not knowing how to walk through the minefield of processes. There is hardly proper orientation for people brought in from outside the system. In fact, they are expected to hit the ground running. The civil servants are there to guide, but they either watch the self-righteous and all-knowing outsiders stumble or even set traps for them.”

Understand how the public sector works: “In the system that we run, most of the political appointees are drawn from the political and professional classes. This is understandable, especially because there is supposedly a professional and apolitical civil service that should undertake the technical component of the work and guide the CEOs in carrying out their administrative, managerial and leadership functions. From my experience, this is a big assumption.

“But even if the assumption holds true all the time, and in all contexts, it is important for the political heads of the institutions to know as much as their advisers and foot-soldiers, and for them to understand the way government functions, from the most routine activity like treating files to the sublime ones like government’s rules and processes. While private sector experience and professional skills are transferable and should enrich public sector work, there is no substitute for understanding how government works.

“Not understanding how government works not only limits the impact of political appointees but also makes them vulnerable. Many good people with good intentions have been hobbled, and made open to manipulation and even blackmail, because of the lack of deep familiarity with Public Service Rules, Financial Regulations, and myriad of other rules and regulations, practices and mores, and circulars.”

Be wary, paranoid even: “As a new CEO, if they don’t prepare you, prepare yourself. Get a good head for numbers and be comfortable with the processes. Read thoroughly and always consult the financial regulations, the procurement law, the public service rules, and others. Remember this golden rule: trust but verify. Review everything that needs your signoff not just because you are responsible for the actions of those below you but also because you are personally liable as the chief accounting officer. It is better for you to assume everyone is trying to set you up and stay out of trouble than to assume good intentions on the part of others and put yourself in avoidable trouble.

“There will be attempts to stampede you into certain directions, especially on assumption of office. They will appeal to the need for urgency and your ego as a person keen on making the difference. It will be important to resist such because you can easily be sucked into other people’s power games. Change in leadership is largely seen as a moment for reset by the contending power groups within an organisation: those in control want to stay so; those who are not, want to seize control. Without having a good grasp of the dynamics, the unwary CEO gets captured by one of the groups and starts, unwittingly, fighting other people’s battles. It will be important to learn to temporise, to treat the practised, fawning adulation of bureaucrats with amusement, and while remaining open to ideas, to view offers of help and even pieces of advice with some scepticism.”

Enthusiasm and good intentions are necessary, but not enough: “Professionals who get into government will need more than enthusiasm and good intentions to succeed. Enthusiasm and good intentions are great and necessary but are not enough. Our public sector surely needs more competent and more public-spirited people, and we should continue to encourage as many people as possible to get involved in public governance. However, being successful in other spheres of life and being keen on making a difference in the public arena would not necessarily guarantee success, as we have seen in too many instances.

“In addition to enthusiasm and good intentions, I will recommend a good dose of deliberateness, clarity, wariness and paranoia even. The starting point will be to get a good understanding of our public sector: how it is configured, how it works, and how to get things done. The public sector is different from the private sector, the academia, the media, and the development sector. It has its own logic, its own pace, its own traditions, and a strong lobby invested in sustaining the status quo. Many things need changing, but you can’t change what you don’t understand. Related to this is the need to know how to stay out of trouble. Heads of agencies double as the chief accounting officers and have direct responsibilities for all the processes and transactions.”

If you are interested in pushing for change, be ready for pushbacks: “Any public administrator who is interested in more than just moving things along should expect and should prepare for the backlash. There is an entrenched constituency deeply invested in sustaining the dysfunctional status quo. If you are interested in changing things, know that you will be resisted and sometimes maligned. Pushing for change will come at a cost, sometimes personal. Whether you have the political support or not, know that there are moments you will be alone and that you easily could be sacrificed for political and other expediencies.

“You need to decide if public sector work is for you in the first place, and if your answer is in the affirmative, you need to be mentally prepared for the battles. You need to have the sagacity to navigate the minefields, to know when to insist or retreat, to build a solid support system and to studiously keep your corner tidy. The last part on strenuously staying above board is to ensure that you don’t make it too easy for them when they eventually come for you.”

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