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Inter-generational conversation on future of the public service


Acting Head of Federal Civil Service, Mrs Folashade Yemi Esan.

At a public function organized by the government a few years ago, there was a chanced meeting between a former public servant who had been a part of the Golden age of the public service in the immediate post-independence period and a new public servant who came in at the point of the democratic turn in Nigeria.

The young man had always heard about the old man and the role he had played in positioning the civil service as the fulcrum for the government to achieve its objectives of good governance when the colonialists left.

The young man thought he could use some of the historical perspectives of the older man with regard to administrative performance when the civil service was just taking off. And he really wanted to know what the old public servant thinks of the system now, and what is being done to get it functional. This was the as best time for him as possible. Luckily, they were seated side by side, and the meeting had been put on hold for a recess.


“It’s a real pleasure to finally meet you, sir.”

“I appreciate the wonderful works you are all doing here.”

“We also have the great tradition you left behind to thank for giving us perspective on how to proceed sir.”
“Yes, that was a really critical time for us. We just inherited the legacy of the British administrative system, and we needed to apply its fundamental institutions and processes to Nigeria’s postcolonial administrative challenges. It was tough!” the old man shook his head.“What is your responsibility here, young man?” the man asked.“I am a deputy director, sir. I am also working towards completing my doctoral thesis in public administration.”

“Interesting! What’s the focus of your thesis?”

“I am examining the modernization of the public service as a condition for the performance of democratic governance in Nigeria. Which brings me to the reason for wanting to see you; I will want your thought on the traditional administrative system, in the golden era of service, and how you were able to get the work done. You must be really proud sir. In your time, as I have discovered, there were two defining parameters for your success—societal and professional values that guided your sense of service, and a political class that had an idea of what they needed to do.”

“You’re absolutely right. First, all of us were nurtured within a template defined around three core values—public-spiritedness, professionalism, and public accountability. Even though some of us did not study public administration, we gave ourselves to its imperatives without any thought for instant gratification. We just knew that we had to serve and be at our duty post without much thought to what we would benefit from. And then we had the utmost challenge that any public servant would dare not joke with: making Nigeria work after the tragic horrors of colonial administration. We were all duly challenged to prove our mettle as indigenous administrators. Independence essentially staked our capacity to succeed, and we had to ensure we did! It’s a paradox, but we had to learn professionalism under our oppressor, and we had to use that competence to transform a polity that the colonial civil service helped and exploited. We had to be professionals to be able to succeed. We had to forget ourselves and any gratification that selfishness demanded. Nigeria just had to succeed for us.”


“Wow. It is really beautiful to have you confirm some of the issues I already read up for my thesis. But I was wondering, sir: how were you able to achieve all this given the rapacious nature of the political class across different contexts, and not only Nigeria?”

“That is an interesting question. We had our own challenges with the political class then. All politicians work with a different timeline that would always clash with the administrative time. When you plan reform, you need a gestation period to allow you to put in place several dynamics and frameworks that would ensure success. But politicians are usually concerned with instant wins. They prefer the low-hanging fruits to the ones that will ripe later. What we did was to recourse to one of the founding dichotomies in the Weberian administration that we were schooled in. Within that framework, politicians and administrators have their distinct responsibilities. The old western region is there to prove my point on the effectiveness of this strategy. Awolowo took care of politics and Adebo concentrated on the administrative implementation of political decisions and policies. The result was the infrastructural wonders of the old Western Region.”

“I have had reasons to study the famous Awolowo-Adebo template with my professors in class.”

“Now tell me, young man. You are the doctor of public administration. How has the public service system fare since we left? I ask because before I left service, it was already clear to us that the Weberian bureaucratic system, and its ‘I am directed’ logic was already undergoing serious administrative interrogation, while we were still in service, the Fulton Report of 1968 was already sending serious signals about the limitation of the Weberian system, and announcing the arrival of a full-scale managerial revolution. How is this generation reacting to managerialism?”

The young man heaved a heavy sigh, and let out a breath. He was amazed at the erudition and dedication. For him, it was such a rare opportunity to meet someone who embodies the spirit of what the new public service should be. “Sir, there are so many things that have changed within the system. First, I should let you know that the system is essentially running on the ‘I am directed” bureaucratic model. It is basically a Weberian system with all its limitations and burdens. But I must say that a lot has also happened.


Since the 1974 Udoji Commission Reform, Nigeria has been put on notice as to what that old system—apologies sir—can no longer support i.e. the aspirations of a public service that must be in tune with an emerging knowledge society founded on new technologies and the imperative of an open society.

In 2005, Ladipo Adamolekun—you must know him, sir—carried out a study of the reform profile of 29 African countries. Those regarded as “advanced reformers” — Mauritius, Botswana, South Africa, and Namibia—took their inherited public administrative system very seriously and built on the values of merit, neutrality, and accountability to sustain a culture of professionalism and performance. The same could be said about the “committed reformers”—Ethiopia, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Mali, Kenya, Mauretania, Tanzania, Senegal, Zambia, etc.—that equally took the modernizing of their public service as a critical intervention point in their attempt to redefine their development profile. The case of Rwanda is highly instructive because it represents the determination it takes for a state to transform its productivity profile by deploying a modernized public service towards the objective of infrastructural development. Genocide was not sufficient in the case of Rwanda to undermine the determination of a functional and highly motivated public service.”

The old man was nodding his head wisely. He understood what the young man was saying, and the trajectory of the analysis. He knew about the famous study and why Nigeria did not farewell. “Adamolekun represented Nigeria as a ‘hesitant reformer’, not so?” the old man asked.

“Yes sir. But fourteen years is a lot of time for the story to have changed. And it has! The essence of my doctoral thesis is to interrogate the reform frameworks and dynamics between 1999 to date, and what deep structural transformations have happened.”

“And what did you discover?”


“Several things actually. First, the several reform programmes from Obasanjo to Buhari have produced what I called ‘pockets of reform effectiveness’ across different sectors of the Nigerian administrative system. These success stories continue to steadily and gradually strengthen the institutionalization of the public service system and its relation to democratic governance.”

Olaopa is a retired federal permanent secretary and professor of public administration.

“Why do I sense a reluctance in you?” the old man stared at him with a scowl.

“Well…” the young man was obviously in distress. He was fidgeting. “The modernizing reforms in Nigeria must be founded on the necessity and urgency of re-professionalization and rebranding of the system. Thus, as much as we can celebrate these pockets of effectiveness, the significant issue is that reform success does not lie in establishing reforms but in deepening, consolidating and building on them to facilitate continual learning and relearning institutional dynamics that enable the system to condition itself to efficiency and effectiveness.” The young man paused, and then went on.

“And there are four pockets of the reform effectiveness that I have identified as being critical to deepen and consolidate: SERVICOM, public-private partnership innovation, IT-enabled performance management, and human resource management dynamics, and the deepening of pension reform. There are however dimensions that require fundamental systemic changes. There is, for example, the need to rethink and update the operational modalities as well as the intellectual bases of skills for running the business of government.”

The old man was truly impressed. It is as if this young public servant has thought this through and knew where to commence the revitalization of the system. “These are critical areas you have highlighted indeed.”


“Yes, sir. Re-professionalization simply means we need to build on what you left behind, and on the strength of the old system. This is what motivates deepening and consolidating what has been achieved so far. This is what global best practices, especially in the US, New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, Canada, Malaysia, and other countries had meant. These civil services have in place a gate-keeping framework, represented by a highly effective human resource management, that ensure that the brightest and the best are those recruited and retained with the best incentives to stimulate performance. Furthermore, there are in place a performance management procedure and dynamics that keep the public servants on their toes within the best understanding of public-spiritedness defined around public accountability and ethical conduct.”

“For us here in Nigeria, more emphasis ought to go to the public-private partnership and the pension reform. The PPPspeaks to the need to reform the government business model in ways that help the system to redefine its core and non-core responsibilities which allow the private sector to assist in getting service delivery done seamlessly. And we cannot underestimate a pension reform that must put smiles on the faces of those who have served their nation productively all their lives. The essence of reform is not just to achieve some technical administrative realignment. In the final analysis, reforms are meant to empower the citizens in ways that make their lives worth living. And this is even more so with regard to pension reform and the urgent need to make access to pension more pensioner-friendly than it presently is.”

By the time the young man had finished outlining his understanding of the reform steps he thought could help consolidate the gains of the past reform efforts, the old man was lost in thoughts: he sees himself in the enthusiasm, the foresight and the brilliance of the young man. He nodded his, but not to what the young man was saying any longer. For him, there is still hope for Nigeria.

Olaopa is a retired federal permanent secretary and professor of public administration.


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