Nigeria News

NIGERIA: Taking Civil Service to Next Level

 Putting this contribution in context requires a cursory reference to the historical connections and shared administrative predicament of British and Nigerian civil services to establish two incontrovertible facts. One, that the Nigerian civil service owes its beginning to the colonial ‘wisdom’ of Britain, and two, that it also benefitted from the British attempt in the ‘60s at confronting its inability to perform its administrative functions when it became so big and consequently too bureaucratic. When the UK’s Fulton Report of 1968 was therefore inaugurated, it was meant to deal with several administrative issues and dysfunction that went beyond the British civil service itself. At this time in Nigeria, the seed of decline was only discernible to a very few for many to see that the young Nigerian civil service needed to address similar bureau-pathologies so very early after independence.

Suffice it to state that when Nigeria made its own reform attempt with the Udoji Commission, its dominant term of reference was similar to Fulton’s: To find the necessary administrative means by which the civil service can be made more effective and efficient by drawing on the insights and recommendations derivable from the managerial revolution in administrative practice. The series of setbacks suffered by both the Fulton and Udoji Reports in determining and implementing their recommendations for moving their civil services forward are now history. The important question for us in this piece then is: Since the Udoji Commission Report of 1974 how has the Nigerian civil service fared, and what remains to be done to achieve the collective goal of a world class institution that would adequately deliver the dividends of democracy to Nigerians?

Since 1974, the resilient Nigerian civil service dragged itself forward by sheer survival will, with spirited efforts made inspite of many confounding sociological multi-pronged assaults. This experience is associated with factors such as: oil boom and the Dutch Disease, military’s ‘with immediate effect and automatic alacrity’ project management culture of impunity, the institutionalisation of Federal Character and the subversion of meritocracy and, the gradual but steady slide in the fortune of our educational system. There were two significant reforms that followed the Udoji Reform: the 1988 Phillips Report and the 1995 Ayida Review Panel.

The Phillips Commission is significant because it had the task of reorganising the operations of the civil service in terms of professionalism that will eventually align it with the managerial revolution recommended by Udoji. The reform failed essentially because (a) in adopting a concept of professionalism which attempted to make a professional out of everybody within the civil service, it threw up a spate of conception-reality irresolvable issues; (b) these issues perhaps might have been interrogated and resolved if the reform was not implemented as a blueprint with a Decree to boot, but through flexible approaches that enables continuous learning and trial and error experimentation which, given the growing but reinforcing domain of knowledge called change management, is now best practice; and (c) its own unique managerial thrust which was directed towards integrating the civil service into the then newfound presidential system of government.

One of the unintended consequences of this is the renaming of the administrative post of permanent secretaries as director-generals within a framework that essentially politicised the service. The Ayida reform subsequent attempt at damage control unfortunately inspired serious reversals which, in not just disbanding the Decree 43 of 1988 but its managerial assumptions and expectations, unwittingly threw away the baby with the bath water.

The essence of a true reform invariably lies in the capacity to move beyond the impediments of history and grasp at the possibilities of the future. This will imply that though reforms in Nigeria have failed, at a general level, to restructure the civil service into an efficient and effective organisation, the dream of having such a world class institution that would alleviate the suffering of Nigerians is still possible. And the possibility begins from deducing the good intentions in the earlier reforms and grounding them into the Nigerian administrative realities through several philosophical and institutional insights that ensure that we get our assumptions and direction right this time. For Edmund Burke, ‘Nothing in progression can rest on its original plan.’

What does it take to move the Nigerian civil service system forward beyond first principle and, the dysfunctional bureau-pathologies? At the first level, there are some incontrovertible truths about reforming the civil service that we cannot escape: First, no civil service anywhere in the world can ever hope to escape the managerial imperatives of efficiency, economy and effectiveness. Second, a significant part of required reform entails ‘getting the basics right’ through a mix of reforms to reform the past reforms, restoring elements of basic management system in MDAs and basic housekeeping issues.

Third, the imperatives of reform to navigate the trajectories of the new knowledge and technological age as well as a departure from the rots of the past might require the building of a critical mass of new professional managers with the knowledge and skills to facilitate the fruition of a new work culture propelled by a new productivity paradigm. Fourth, these managers require a solid HRM base around which the civil service can facilitate a continuous recruitment of human capital on which the capability readiness of any civil service is assessed. Fifth, the MDAs constitute the structural template around which the reform of the Service can be measured and projected. Sixth, the civil service reform can be further strengthened through a symbiotic public-private partnership that ensures that the civil service itself is firmly grounded in the governance initiatives that unites government with non-state actors. Seventh, there is a need for a new regime of seminar spirit that combines a readiness to open up government business operations to performance reviews and praxis that enable sharing and learning and, inter-sectoral professional inter-change.

Eight, given current a- developmental capital-recurrent budget ratio, civil service need deep-seated reengineering that would help it to work out significant evidence-based efficiency savings and productivity compact with which it would negotiate a performance-indexed competitive remuneration package ahead of job evaluation that would enable government regain the status of an employer of choice in the national economy.  And lastly, no civil service reform efforts can ever hope to survive the transition from conception to reality and implementation without the necessary and critical support from a committed administrative and political leadership.

It is on these administrative foundations that any reform efforts can ever hope to succeed. However, there is a further need to translate these foundational imperatives into the local administrative realities in Nigeria if we hope to get beyond the logjams of our administrative history. Reform involves rethinking the framework and modus operandi of government business in a manner that ensures that the civil service becomes a truly democratic institution that delivers goods and services to Nigerians. The Obasanjo administration recognised this in the attention it gave to a process of reorientation towards an attitudinal and cultural change for civil servants. This should be deepened in subsequent iteration to translate into several and continuous retreats, solution clinics, seminars and workshops where the true democratic functions of the civil service will be enunciated, a house-keeping initiative in the MDAs will be flagged-off as a means by which the officers will become acquainted with the need for a rebranded professional institution, and a change management programme will be put in place to equip civil servants with the requisite competency skills, ideas, techniques and tools to function in a knowledge environment.

At the programmatic level, Nigeria has been blessed with a reform document—the 2009 National Strategy for Public Service Reform (NSPSR)—which is an irreducible diagnostic and strategic framework within which the future of the Nigerian civil service can be re-envisioned. The NSPSR is important because it has reviewed systems and implemented recommendations of past reforms with impact assessments of some on-going reform undertaken.  The document also contains strategic assumptions which could guide our actions with regard to putting in place a performance-oriented, entrepreneurial, technology-enabled and accountable service operated within a social compact business model that ultimately benefits Nigerians.

The NSPSR, for instance, will allow for an immediate diagnostic audit of the capacity readiness of the MDAs as the unit of reform in the civil service. This capability review reinforced with workforce study review will establish their current capability and gaps which then form the basis of their restructuring plan for capability readiness in the immediate, short and medium-term.  In the short-term, for example, their capacity gaps will be made up for with huge technical support to enable unhindered implementation of government development agenda while system’s renewal is on-going. MDAs baseline capability reviews will however create benchmarks around which the basic management systems of the MDAs can be standardised.

There is also a theoretical angle to reform. Public administration in Nigeria is a curious enterprise in a sense because its practitioners often deride the role of theories in the framework of their profession. Yet, any reform not grounded in theory becomes essentially a lame effort. Practice enables a rethinking of the assumptions of public administrations, and these theoretical assumptions, in turn, motivate the extension of the boundaries of administrative practice. The relationship between theory and practice therefore demands the existence of a community of practice, represented by a revamped National Association for Public Administration and Management (NAPAM) midwife by a consortium of professional bodies as NIM, CIPM et al, which drives the continuous theoretical and practical rethinking of public administration in Nigeria.

The task before NAPAM as a community of service is enormous and urgent. Nigeria, like many other African countries, operates a civil service system, without a solid value and institutional dynamics that explains the need for reform and rehabilitation in the first place. Reform is meant to either return an organisation to an original profile or recalibrate its operation in a manner that makes it fit for future organisational expectations.The civil service is a colonial imposition that lacks the values that heralded its evolution in the West. The challenge therefore is to rethink the assumptions and base fundamentals that underpin public administration theory and practice in Nigeria with a view to articulating a philosophical and institutional foundation for a new Public Service that accords with both the democratic and technological demands of a knowledge society.

This theoretical scrutiny of the foundations of the practice of public administration in Nigeria will evolve simultaneously alongside a deep understanding and rearticulation of the role of leadership in administrative reform. Burt Nanus once remarked that a strategy is as good as the vision that guides it. However, behind any vision is a person or group of persons who formulated that vision and accompanied it with the conviction to push its implementation to its logical and administrative conclusion.The other side of the leadership story, according to Bob Garratt, is that rottenness enters the fish right from its head! Consequently, the civil services needs to re-concept the strategic role of its leadership corps with a view to increase the intelligent quotient (IQ) of service and enhance its strategic intelligence, competence and performance accountability.  A new Senior Executive Service (SES) with a clear sense of purpose that operates a performance-oriented service is recommended. It will plan the business of government much more strategically and expose itself to peer or outside reviews within the framework of performance management.  The new service will operate with metrics that objectively and clearly distinguish and rewards good and poor performers; manages diversity within a competency-based system that is more open to talents from other professional domains and to ideas. This will enable a measure of cross-fertilization that should be galvanized by an active network of community of practice and service.

Thus, understanding of the role of leadership in administrative reforms will equally involve a specific outlining of the context of relationship and responsibility between the administrative and political leadership. While the politician is expected to be a policy maker, it is expected that the permanent secretary, for instance, be an apolitical professional with sufficient experience to mobilize institutional memory, knowledge and capability of the Ministry and its Agencies as critical input into the policy decision making processes. Both however need to function in tandem; they require a model of cooperation that ensures that conflict and antagonism is reduced to the minimum for the sake of administrative progress.

Creating a new generation of managers requires, on its own, a unique HR dynamics calibrated around a succession plan rooted in web-based human resource forecast and projection, skill specifications and recruitment analysis, the professionalization of the core functions as well as the reconceptualization of the policy functions, the planning, research and statistics departments within a new competency framework. This level of transformation, for me, is the core of the reform required to inject life into the reform agenda of the Nigerian civil service. The simple reason is that it is the administrative leadership which facilitates an ingenious adaptation of the foundation, values and operational and institutional elements of the civil service to produce a rounded and coherent blueprint for organisational development and progress. ‘If there is a spark of genius in the leadership function at all,’ writes Warren Bennis, ‘it must lie in this transcending ability…to assemble…a clearly articulated vision of the future that is at once simple, easily understood, clearly desirable, and energizing.’

The Nigerian civil service is an evolving institution. It has withstood many institutional distresses and dysfunction. The Udoji Report of 1974 was a critical point that could have spelt a dynamics turnaround, but we missed that moment. The challenge, however, is to look ahead and ensure that we inject the crucial insights in Udoji and other past reforms with forthright commitment and a viable agenda around which the civil service system could achieve a rebirth.
-Dr. Olaopa is Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Communication Technology

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