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Rebuilding public service in the wings of a productivity movement


Dr. Olaopa is executive vice-chairman, Ibadan School of Government & Public Policy (ISGPP).

At a recently organized Prof. Pat Utomi’s Centre for Values in Leadership (CVL) annual seminar and international symposium on “Leadership and Performance in Africa’s Economic Competitiveness,” held on the 6th of February in Lagos, I had the great fortune not only of being one of the participants that sat under the distinguished keynotes of Dr Kandeh Yumkella, a presidential candidate in Sierra Leone and a former UN Undersecretary general, and the newly minted Dr Olusegun Obasanjo. But I got the most distinct honor of being selected as one of the panelists to interrogate Yumkella’s and Obasanjo’s keynote addresses.

The consensus the discourse threw up was that Nigeria has arrived at its lowest level of national performance imaginable. Prof. Utomi then put me in the spotlight by asking for my expert opinion on what could be done to salvage the public service which requires urgent institutional rejigging in order for it to overcome the policy execution trap which has contributed immensely to the undermining Nigeria’s capacity to harness her economic growth possibilities and developmental potentials. I offer this piece as a complement to the brief expert ideas on the issue which time did not permit me to fully outline at the CVL event.

It will be a serious technicist illusion for anyone to think that the policy implementation crisis can only be tackled with a reformed public service alone. This technicist assumption reduces the execution of reform to the mere issues of tactics and operational strategies that fail essentially to take into consideration the dynamic nature and trajectory of reform management. While all civil service reforms are essentially technicist or instrumentalist in the sense that they require addressing several and severe technical administrative issues and problems, reform success goes beyond merely ensuring an aggregation of technical details and dynamics. There is also a fundamental necessity to situate the reform of the civil service within the space of other complementary reform projects.

Reform, within the contemporary resurgence of democratic politics and the growing expectations of the citizens, has become more complicated and comprehensive beyond the purview of public service reform.

Governance reform, all across the globe, now represents a broader understanding of reform that brings the government into a collaborative partnership with a broad coalition of non-state actors, especially the private sectors and civil society organizations which are stakeholders in the good governance dynamics that is meant to bring the dividends of democracy closer to the citizens.

The fundamental end of the governance reform is to achieve a more efficient and effective democratic service delivery that will empower the people and make their lives more meaningful. Such a reform framework not only initiates some fundamental transformation of the three functions of government (namely, policy management, regulation and service delivery), it essentially also demands some immediate strategic responsibility.

Thus, if the Nigerian government must achieve a sustainable national transformation that caters for democratic governance, then the government has the most immediate responsibility to commit totally to the reform project in the same measure that it commits to visioning and development planning.This observation derives from the crucial fact that the success of any reform project depends on the political buy-in and commitment of the political leadership. Once this is achieved, the success of the reform is almost assured.

At the seminar, I cited the example of the UK 1980 reform project under PM Margaret Thatcher and her successor, John Major. Indeed, Nigeria is at that stage that UK was with her civil service (in terms of its policy architecture, not functionality) in the shape that it was migrated to us and, in significant terms, in the shape Nigeria’s public service still is: described officially in the UK as “… inefficient, badly managed and unresponsive” in one breath.

And on the other, lacking innovation, too large to be efficient with too many jobs duplication and many MDAs overlapping what others is doing. Besides, given the way the Nigerian civil service is currently wired (heavily bureaucratic and undiluted with the technocratic cum entrepreneurial managerial culture that define 21st century public administration praxis), it is incapable of providing quality service both in the advice it gives and in the service it renders to the public.

It was this same reality that caused the UK, in the 1980s, to commence the process which first saw the introduction of the Efficiency Unit (and later Delivery Unit), first under the Chairman/CEO of Marks & Spenser, Lord Derek Rayner (supported by the leading public administration experts), to provide leadership to a dynamic that turned out to be an institutional reengineering of the entire public sector and a paradigm shift. There are now dozens of change management models as seminal as the UK’s, if not more, to pick ideas from. But the point to make with this reference is one of how critical political commitment and leadership sophistication is to institution rebuilding and transformation.

And this political commitment requires that the Nigerian federal government set up a presidential reform commission that will be charged with the oversight function of the public sector overall institution rebuilding and trajectory from design to implementation for at least five years. This reform commission must necessarily be headed by a public sector management specialist with a 21st century core management credentials as the executive chairman.

The Commission, which will draw technical support from consortium of firms and with a strengthened Bureau of Public Service Reform (BPSR) as its secretariat, should be saddled with a very clear mandate to articulate, based on multitudes of readily available national strategies, study reports, well-intentioned reform initiatives that are being badly managed, etc. from which it will not only design but oversee the implementation of a comprehensive institutional reform and changes at two levels.

The first aspect of the reform program the management experts in the reform commission must confront is Nigeria’s productivity profile and its very low scorecards as a transformation point for governance performance in Nigeria.

Development is a function of an optimal productivity framework. In fact, productivity is intricately attached to good governance. This is because if governance has to do with the capacity of the government to make good policy decisions, then such decisions affect the productivity level of the state, which in turn facilitates infrastructural development and eventually empowers service delivery to the citizens.

Since the management experts understand this intrinsic relationship between productivity, development and good governance, the challenge remains going beyond rhetoric to substantive institutional reform of the productivity framework of the Nigerian state. One good way to proceed is through historical insight into how other high-performing nations have dealt with their productivity challenge. And the best example for me remains post-World War II Japan.

Japan pulled off an economic miracle in a period of one decade after it was pummeled to the ground by the American bomb dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Any other state faced with this kind of national challenge would have buckled under. Add the fact that Japan is a conglomeration of islands without any substantive mineral resources that could translate into comparative economic advantage. Yet, from a vanquished state, Japan rose to become the second largest capitalist economy in the world. Japan’s economic recovery process had external and internal factors.

The external factor had to do with the intervention of the United States in the economic equation. However, the most outstanding influence is the capacity and the resilience of the Japanese government to envision what is needed and then to put a unique and bold strategy of capacitation in place. The strategy is to first understand that the government by itself cannot facilitate economic recovery.

Japan’s strategy was three-pronged: strict regulation bordering on protectionism, trade expansion and the stimulation of private sector growth. Two further internal strategic dynamics are cogent to understanding the productivity revolution of post-war Japan. First, the Japanese government deployed a Keiretsu principle that unites the country’s manufacturers, suppliers, bankers, industries and so on to form a unique dynamic of economic cooperation.

This was further capacitated by the introduction of experts with deep understanding of the relationship between economic growth, development, productivity and performance. Three of such experts are important in Japan’s case — Edward Deming, Joseph Duran and Armand Feingenbaum. These quality management gurus encoded the idea of quality management into a dynamic framework for improving productivity through workforce reform.

Through Deming especially, Japan was able to achieve the following: (a) Better design of products to improve service; (b) Higher level of uniform product quality; (c) Improvement of product testing in the workplace and in research centers; and (d) Greater sales through global markets.

The second strategy of the Japanese post-war success story also gives us the second aspect of the proposed reform program. Japan added to the keiretsu principle a deep understanding of the symbiotic relationship between enforcing workplace quality control on the public service while expecting the public service in turn to respond by becoming capacity ready to deliver efficiently to the populace.

Despite the initial reform anxiety we highlighted about the technicist illusion in making public service reform the sole reform prerequisite, there is no escaping the core significance of a deep-seated and appropriately sequenced public service change programme as the best means of backstopping the productivity revolution in Nigeria. Without much rhetorical ado, such an institutional reform must be foregrounded on six core pillars.

The first and most strategic is to implement new policy architecture to support a competency-based human resource management system that is administered by HR professionals and underpinned by meritocracy.The first challenge here is the demand in squaring this new HRM policy with the application of the Federal Character policy. But I do not see any conflict here, as the federal character policy does not exclude the application of merit in placing ethnic constituents in administrative positions. The essence of the competency-based HRM is to facilitate the evolution of a performance management system that demands that performance is measured in terms of outputs rather than inputs or resource allocated alone.

The second pillar of the reform is to now implement this in the Federal Public Service by insisting that all top functionaries of government SGF, HCSF, Ministers, Permanent Secretaries and CEOs of agencies sign performance agreements on behalf of themselves and their organisation. The first eighteen months can serve as test run to clear out all the glitches before a performance contract is then issued and sanctions are applied. Retention on job will then be based on satisfactory performance assessment based on set targets and performance scorecard administered by independent but competent assessors.

The first 18months would also be critical in the completion of the third pillar of reform, which is the reassessment of the role of the state vis-à-vis the economy, other non-state actors, and the model of doing government business, etc. This, for instance, will become crucial in the reconfiguration of the MDAs as the essential engine room for effective service delivery.

Within this reform program, the MDAs will have to be reengineered and sufficiently capacitated to refocus on their core functions while determining amongst alternative service delivery business models the best approaches to delivering the non-core functions.

The fourth element of reform involves conducting efficiency scrutiny of MDAs. This will demand the use of productivity improvement tools to eliminate wastes and to institute sustainable cost structure including budgeting and medium-term expenditure framework for the MDAs. The fifth reform element requires undertaking a workforce study and job evaluation that is crucial in outlining the skill gaps in the MDAs.

This will enable the documentation of the skills and competences available to government. The real reform will demand that the government implement efficient measures for skills upgrading and reskilling of the civil service. At the sixth level, the job evaluation dynamics only becomes a mere means towards the installation of a new technical-rational model of pay and remuneration based on labour market relativities and relevant countries comparators that take advantage of the most useful global benchmarks.

The last reform framework is the reordering of labour laws and the chaotic partnership of the tripartite (employer, government and labour), to put in place a framework of developmental industrial relations that facilitate the productivity revolution. Without such a reform of the union-management dynamics, productivity essentially breaks down within the existing adversarial trade unionism that undermines performance. This must begin with a concession to labour that it is not only the payroll and personnel cost that is burdening the cost of governance. The entire expenditure streams of governments at all levels need unbundling through deep-seated efficiency scrutiny.

Reform is a complicated institutional business especially within the administrative and political context of Nigeria. But, it is something that can be done. The problem is not the absence of the ideas or the knowledge of the technical wherewithal. On the contrary, what we lack is the will to facilitate the reform. It is the will that makes a way, even in public management reform.
* Dr. Olaopa is executive vice chairman, Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP)

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Pat Utomi
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