Restoring the pride of the public service in Nigeria

September 7, 2019
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The public service anywhere is the key institution that guarantees the legitimacy of government. The simple reason for this is that it is an amalgam of structures, processes and procedures that gives a functional face to what is called “government.” When we, therefore, say that a government is “good,” the implication is that the government has found an effective institutional means for transforming its policies into success stories of seamless implementations that the citizens see through the dogged determination that not just brings infrastructural development but better life, especially in the midst of excruciating poverty. When a government is considered “bad,” the focus of attention is certainly on the misgovernance, leadership ineffectiveness, public service system and its institutional incapacities. The difference between good and bad governance in any context of state politics depends therefore, significantly, on the status and operational capacity of the public service.

The public service, as a system of bureaucratic procedure, is founded on a proud administrative history that projects it as a vocation unlike any other. The bureaucracy is a call to service; a responsibility to serve the public in ways that places duties over livelihood, and deferred rewards over instant gratification. To be a public servant is its own reward. It places a person on a pedestal of service that is essentially a calling. However, the vocation of the public service can be recognised only within the administrative parameters and possibilities of a context. While a public servant in, say, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries would hold up his or herself as the arrowhead of success of the government, the administrative context in Africa or a country like Nigeria is crippling. The vocational honor of the public service in Nigeria is papered over by the zero-sum nature of politics and disenabling nepotism. Put in other words, bad politics has drained the self-esteem of the pubic service, and has left it bereft of pride in itself.

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The public service in Nigeria is deeply challenged by a modernising responsibility that has not fully taken off.The first condition in modernising the public service is to pump up its capacity to believe in itself and its capacity to transform both itself and the state of which it is the singular transformative institutional element. In Nigeria, as in many other public services across the globe, the self-esteem of the system derives from its professional competence. A public servant is known by his professional capacity to deliver the goods. We can therefore say that to restore the pride of the public service in Nigeria requires a re-professionalisation strategy that will essentially enable us to reconceptualise who a public servant is. In administrative history, a public servant is defined by the sum of professional competences and skills sets that allows a person to function adequately within a system that is established to transform the policies of government into achievable outputs. To arrive at the understanding of who a public servant is means a proper understanding of the public service as a functional profession. The public service and the public servant are two sides of the same coin.

Restoring the pride of the Nigerian public service demands approaching its re-professionalisation from two dimensions. I will utilise the negative-positive structure of modernising imperatives to outline how the public service can move from its present debilitation to the zenith of self-esteem it requires to step confidently into its responsibility as the core institutional agent in national development.

First, the negatives. One of the most fundamental crippling factors that weigh heavily on the capacity readiness of the public service is the statist orientation of the governmentin Nigeria. This simply means that the Nigerian state overwhelms its own public service with too much politics. This is one of the enduring consequences of colonialism. In the modern discourse on the reform of the public service, however, the first issue is usually a redefinition of what the state is, and how we can rethink its status vis-à-vis its public service. Simply put, the state has become too cumbersome for the effectiveness and efficiency required to provide democratic service delivery that will empower the citizens. Redefining the state simply means undermining its over-bearing statism. It becomes more of a steering rather than a commanding state.The first way to go about this is to overhaul the entire expenditure structure of government through a massive and comprehensive productivity and efficiency audit of the MDAs in ways that will undermine redundancy, wastages and bureaucratic corruption that constitute the fundamental challenges to the efficient performance of the system. The simple administrative logic is that an abysmally high cost of governance is indirectly proportional to the optimal functionality and productivity of the public service.

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The second means by which the redefinition of the state could be achieved derived from the expansion of the governance space in a way that facilitate a network of collaborations and partnership with nonstate actors, civil society organisations and the private sector in its entirety. The most immediate effect of this is on the rehabilitation of the business model of the government and of the MDAs. An alternative service delivery mechanism comes through the initiative of the public-private partnership (PPP). This initiative brings the government and the nonstate actors together to calibrate a smarter business model that combine the regulatory capacity of the government and its publicness with the smart modus operandi of the private sector to deliver the goods and services to the citizens. In this sense, therefore, it becomes imperative for the public service to then differentiate between its core and non-core functions. This distinction becomes necessary because the public service cannot afford to be saddled with things which could ordinarily be outsourced. The core functions of the MDAs are those that ought to be the focus of operations. This is essentially one of the mechanisms that facilitate efficient service delivery. The core competency thesis insists that an MDA becomes a high performing organization if it concentrates on its core functions and outsources its non-cores—HRM or ICT, for instance—to others.

All these back-end transformations need to be complemented by some positive institutional reforms that put the public service itself in operational light. First, a flexible, knowledge-based and technology-enabled public service can only function when it is manned by those who are themselves knowledge-administrators. The bureaucrats of the Weberian traditional administration would be at a loss how to handle the new managerial system. The new generation of public manager who have the capacity to manage the new administrative dynamics of the twenty first century must be adaptable, charismatic, emotionally and spiritually intelligent, entrepreneurial, possess the capacity to develop talents, have effective communication skills, must be competent, and so on. Unfortunately, within Nigeria’s diversity management system, informed by the practice of the quota system and the federal character principle, the managerial requirements for fishing out such competent public managers is seriously jeopardised.

I must insert this as an urgent skills imperative and as a compelling new set of competences that public servants aspiring to leadership positions must have. Within the framework of rethinking the intellectual bases of skills for running the business of government is the need to create a balance in operational delivery and policy experience of public officers. At the core of the operational experience of top public servants should be commercial experience through line responsibility for generating revenue in a complex market; for managing expectation of delivery against commitment with commercial stakeholders; experience with management of the negotiation of large scale commercial contracts from bidding and their operational delivery against contracted standards; including experience in loan financing; productivity and the financial costs of deliveries in the interface of PPPs and in core ventures, and many more, all with a view to deepening strategic communication between public managers and the private sector in the development process.

The public service must also have the capacity to determine the influx of those who will eventually be depended upon to achieve the performance and productivity on which the status of the public service depends. The pride of the public service therefore relies essentially on a human resources management process that sieve between those who have been called to serve and those merely looking for a means of livelihood. The system therefore needs a new induction and initiation framework that will facilitate recruitment, training, competence and retention of the public servants based on the best practices determining conditions of service—job evaluation and pay and compensation structure—that is comparable with the reward and performance structure in the other sectors of the economy; and that has the capacity to boost the prestige of the public managers and turn them into patriots ready to serve their country.

Part of the human resources policy that turns raw recruits into competent public managers also include a framework of administrative leadership and mentoring that allows the leadership to reflect the true ethical requirement and values of the public service. It is in this sense that the entire public service becomes a veritable framework of mentoring from which those incoming into the service immediately begins to learn the ethical rope of service by merely gazing at the exemplary leadership attitude and character of those in authority. The leaders become the ethical compass that direct the operational essence of the public service in ways that yield productivity. What this suggests is that the public service must be able to put in place a learning infrastructure that ensures that apart from inducting new public servants, there will always be opportunities for relearning and reskilling that keeps the re-professionalisation objectives always in tune with global administrative best practices, as well as systemic reforms that enables environmental scanning, benchmarking, self-introspection, and sustainable system improvements.

The future of the Nigerian public service cannot be divorced from its professional status as the institutional guarantee for good governance. This is the reason why all the operational and technocratic objectives of the National Strategy for Public Service Reform (NSPSR) must be foregrounded within the imperative of restoring the pride of a system on whose shoulder rests the governance framework that Nigerians require to make sense of their lives as Nigerians.

Professor Olaopa,  a retired Federal Permanent Secretary & Professor of Public Administration, writes through tolaopa2003@gmail.com

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