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Restoring the pride of public service in Nigeria

By Tunji Olaopa
09 September 2019   |   3:40 am
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...

Dr. Olaopa

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 mis-governance, 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 recognized only within the administrative parameters and possibilities of a context. While a public servant in, say, the Organization 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.

The public service in Nigeria is deeply challenged by a modernizing responsibility that has not fully taken off. The first condition in modernizing 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-professionalization strategy that will essentially enable us to reconceptualize 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-professionalization from two dimensions. I will utilize the negative-positive structure of modernizing 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 government in 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.

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 organizations 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 non-state 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 citizen.

•To be continued tomorrow
•Olaopa is a retired Federal Permanent Secretary and Professor of Public Administration