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Reforming The Nigerian Civil Service: My Struggles, My Pains, My Triumphs (III)


tunji-olaopaCONFUCIUS, the ancient Chinese philosopher, once gave a remarkable admonishment: ‘Study the past if you would define the future.’ And for Edmund Burke, once we take historical knowledge for granted, then we are doomed to repeat those terrible mistakes of the past. There is no better preface on the significance of historical insights into Nigeria’s administrative trajectory. History, any history for that matter, is not a list of boring stories of what had gone by.

On the contrary, history is a rich tapestry of human actions and inaction, and the multiplicity of consequences that flows from them. Nigeria’s administrative history stems from the moment the Nigerian state came into its amalgamated existence in 1914.

The history of Nigeria’s reform experiment becomes important once we see it as the ongoing attempt, in administrative terms, to come to term with the possibility of redeeming Nigeria from its postcolonial deficits. Amalgamation was motivated by colonial arithmetic; hence, it lacked any national consideration of progress.

The need for administrative reform is therefore premised on the urgent necessity of transforming the civil service into an effective institution that would foreground the nation’s search for an infrastructural revolution that would alleviate the years of denigration Nigerians have suffered under colonial rule.

Within the context of my doctoral investigation of the evolution of administrative reforms, the idea of a trajectory therefore becomes very critical. A trajectory, in this administrative context, becomes an intentional search for an omega-point that is represented by series of successful reform efforts, beginning from an alpha-point.

While all the pre and post-1954 reforms are significant in their own regard, especially in the calibration of what came to be known as the Nigerian Civil Service, the real nation-defining reform issues actually commenced in 1971 with the Adebo Commission. Like most of the others, the Adebo Commission was established to deal with some of the intended and unintended consequences of the Nigerianisation Policy, especially the wage issue.

But the Adebo Commission soon became caught up in two bigger issues, internal and external. While still investigating its terms of reference, the first military coup had happened, and the decline of the civil service structure and organisation had commenced. The military government set in motion several critical factors that instigated the gradual evolution of a structural pattern that consistently whittled down the capacities the civil service has to promote good governance. Externally, the managerial revolution had already commenced, and the British Civil Service was already the focus of its demands through the Fulton Commission of 1968.

Thus, it was that the Adebo Commission began with a brief to investigate the wage and recruitment issues of the new civil service, but ended up with a more significant managerial challenge bordering on organisation and structure. The Adebo Commission recommended that another public service review commission; the Udoji Commission came into existence.

The Udoji Commission, if I am asked, remains the singular most significant reform commission in Nigeria’s administrative history. It is the watershed of what could have gone right but went wrong with the civil service system in Nigeria. The significance of the Udoji Commission is simple but profound: it is the commission that had to mediate between the new managerialism that was defining the civil service system and the old Weberian tradition on which the Nigerian Civil Service was founded.

In its Main Report, the Commission diagnosed the central problem of the Nigerian Civil Service as that of its inability to respond to serious change. When the Commission was in place, the NCS was already too bureaucratic to achieve the postcolonial objective of national development and democratic service delivery to Nigerians.

Thus, fully inspired by the UK Fulton Report, the Udoji Commission went on to recommend, on the one hand, a new style public service infused with “new blood” working under a result-oriented management system operated by professionals and specialists in particular fields. And, on the one hand, it recommended standardization of conditions of service, increase in public sector wages, a unified and integrated administrative structure, the elimination of waste, and the removal of inefficient departments.

Andrew Grove got it right: ‘When you’re caught in the turbulence of a strategic inflection point, the sad fact is that instinct and judgment are all you’ve got to guide you through.’

The Gowon administration missed the significance of the ‘strategic inflection point’ that the Udoji Report represented. Rather than Udoji becoming a template for the rejuvenation of the civil service system in Nigeria, it became a slogan for abundant wage. This was because the Federal Government decided to implement the wage component of the Udoji Report rather than the structural components.

The turning point was therefore lost in the euphoria of wage increment. It seems to me that since Udoji, the civil service system in Nigeria has been attempting to reverse the mistake of 1975. Udoji casts a long shadow over the stagnation of the civil service.
For instance, it is interesting to understand the dynamics of the next two significant reform attempts in Nigeria—the 1988 Civil Service Reform and the 1995 Ayida Public Service Review Panel.

The Philips Commission Report, which generated the 1988 reform recommendation, was forced by inevitable global trajectory to revisit the managerial revolution in administration through its attempt to lay the foundation of a professionalised civil service. Professionalisation was thus tied to specialisation.

Unfortunately, rather than professionalising, the reform entrenched a politicisation of the workforce, especially the status of the permanent secretary which became a political appointment. The conception of professionalism was also curious because it was taken as a function of the location and time span of an officer in a particular ministry.

The Ayida Panel was supposed to act in a review capacity to interrogate the recommendations of the Philips commission as a means by which the system can be reinvented. But it took the logic of reinvention the wrong way—it reinvented the pre-1988 civil service system and its managerial deficit! The simple but sad implication of this is that the Ayida Panel did not have a concrete agenda of reinvention, so it recommended a regression back to the status quo ante.

‘Challenging the status quo,’ according to Gary Hamel, ‘has to be the starting point for anything that goes under the label of strategy.’ While the Ayida Panel failed at doing this, it becomes the administrative standard by which to assess the remaining four reform strategies that define the democratic dispensation in Nigeria—the Obasanjo Renewal Programme, the Yar’Adua Civil Service Reform Programme, the Transformation Agenda of the Jonathan administration, and President Muhammadu Buhari’s ongoing Change Agenda.

The four reform agenda are founded on the fundamental principle that no transformation of the Nigerian state would be possible without a capable, efficient and corruption-free public service. The Obasanjo, Yar’Adua and Jonathan administrations therefore accepted the reform blueprint contained in the National Strategy for Public Service Reform (NSPSR) which projected the vision of a world-class public service that is professionalised enough to deliver government policies and programmes.

Much as these reform agenda are beautiful programmes of renewal and revitalisation that has the benefits of administrative hindsight, visions are often undermined by reality. And the present reality is that the civil service system in Nigeria, in spite of the multitude of beautiful reform visions and strategies, is still struggling to deliver democratic dividends to millions of Nigerians who are sighing under the terrible burden of poverty. The Nigerian Civil Service is still far from being a world class public service.

If, as Norman Cousins insists, ‘history is a vast early warning system,’ have we learnt any good and practical lessons from 1971? From the historical nuggets of reform trajectory that we have outlined here, what are the fundamental administrative lessons to be learnt? What are the defining issues in civil service renewal effort? That will be the subject of the fourth part.

THE part three of this series offered the concept of trajectory as a methodological concept by which we can understand the evolution of reform visions and strategies since the beginning of the civil service system in Nigeria.

And we saw that it is with the Udoji Commission that Nigeria and her civil service system came closest to re-engineering a reform dynamics that would have launched our public service on a global track of managerial efficiency. Unfortunately, the administrative decision-making dynamics of the Gowon regime failed to differentiate the substance of that report from its trivial components. Instead of ‘Udoji’ being a signifier of administrative hindsight; it became a pointer to national profligacy.

I was not part of the Udoji Commission, but every true reformer feels the pain of its unfulfilled potentials. I specifically feel the trauma more because I have been involved in the specifics of reform complexity, and I clearly understood what we have missed in administrative and historical terms. We made the point in the last part that we are still trying to catch up with its incredible administrative diagnosis of the pathology of the civil service system in Nigeria. And this is that the system lacks the capacity for change and adaptability.

This is the first fundamental reason why most reforms efforts and strategies have failed in Nigeria. We have a tapestry of well-intentioned reform blueprints from 1954 till date, but unfortunately, we have little to show in terms of the capability readiness of the civil service to encounter global and local changes and effectively engage them.
As at the time the Udoji Commission was established, the civil service system in Nigeria, like its British counterpart, had already reached its bureaucratic point; it had become a great rock in the tideline.

Beginning with the Nigerianisation Policy, which favoured representativeness over merit, the decline of the civil service was accelerated with the destruction of the Weberian administrative structure by the structural adjustment programme (SAP).

Since the 80s, therefore, most of the reform programmes have been serious exercises in administrative damage control. The major question of reform has been: How do we build effective capacities that would make the public service regain its efficiency and attain a world-class status as a service delivery institution capable of establishing democratic governance?

I take this question as both theoretical and practical. The theoretical dimension to arriving at an adequate answer requires that we understand why reforms have failed for so many years in Nigeria. Why has the trajectory of reform progress failed to reach the omega-point?

The ultimate objective of every reform programme is to either restore a system back to its original state of efficiency or take it beyond a present point to a future state where it is better able to respond to institutional challenges, internally and externally. When we think reform, we think performance. Performance simply means getting the public service to work at its best possible optimal level. Performance, in other words, is the operational dynamics that makes good governance possible.

But there is a long stretch between the reform and the achievement of a performance credential, and that stretch is littered with a whole lot of complex variable. We call that complexity the execution trap. Reforms succeed or fail in the details; that is where the devil resides. Reforms have often failed because beautifully crafted reform plans have been backed by poorly conceived strategy for execution. The fact however is given a poorly conceived strategy for execution, the best reform idea will always fail.

The visions of where we want our civil service to be in 10 and 20 years are not hard to come by. What is difficult is the will to push that vision to its logical conclusion by implementing its roughest details.

In other words, the vision of reform must always be weighed against the reality of implementing the vision. Most visions have died because they had no good soil in reality to aid their survival. And the single most significant factor in mediating the conception-reality gap is a perceptive administrative decision making dynamics.

The dynamics is realised in the administrative boundary between doing things right and doing the right things. The Udoji Commission Report and its recommendations were destroyed in the very act of deciding what to implement and what to put in abeyance.

The decisional/policy failure is the first condition that ensures that a good reform plan hopelessly falls apart. This failure manifest at four (4) levels: (i) failure to anticipate problem before it surfaced; (ii) failure to see problem for what it is what it is when it surfaced; (iii) the tendency to ignore the problem even when properly perceived; and (iv) failure of attempts to resolve the problem.

Policy failure in reform implementation is further complemented by operational and strategic disconnection. As far as execution is concerned, reform strategic plans must not just be dedicated to the analysis of data about how to go about reforming; rather, it must ensure that the data translate to action plan which will bring about growth, increased productivity, and quality of goods and services.

Reform implies the willingness to think strategically. In this case, we can say that a vision is only as good as the strategy that instrumentalizes it, and keys it into the governance framework of a state.

Thinking strategically involves asking fundamental questions: (a) Can we identify how we’re going to turn the plan into specific results for growth and productivity? (b) Are we staffed with the right kinds of people to execute the plan? (c) If not, what are we going to do about it? (d) How do we make sure the operating plan has sufficient specific programs to deliver the outcomes to which we’ve committed?

All these questions point to the inevitable role of the MDAs in reform failure. And this is precisely to the extent that the operating system by which MDAs convert policies to action are inherently faulty. Within the Nigerian context, the MDAs are caught between two different and incongruous administrative business models—the Weberian and the neoliberal—operating side by side and simultaneously.

This effectively translates, also, into worries about systemic capability and capacity issues involving (i) input process-oriented business model; (ii) skills and competency gaps; (iii) lack of clarity on actions required to execute national plan; (iv) poor alignment between national plans, sectoral activities and departmental/unit programmes; (v) unclear accountabilities for execution; (vi) inadequate performance monitoring and reporting; (vii) organisational silos and culture blocking of execution; and (viii) undefined rewards and sanctions.

So, given there that there are good reform ideas, visions and blueprint, they will definitely meet their waterloo in the glaring lack of capability readiness for execution in the MDAs as the powerhouse for administrative efficiency. This is exactly the point of frustration for most reform-minded administrator.

I spent 20-plus years studying the policy, capacity, resource, process and performance gaps created by the reform deficiency of the MDAs, and the point of my depression is that these gaps steadily built up over long years of bureaucratic complacency.

And again, we turn full cycle back to the neglected possibilities of the Udoji recommended reform. At the core of that reform would have been an attempt at instituting a performance management metric into the very operational heart of the MDAs to make them more efficient. When Udoji failed, there was nothing to arrest the MDAs’ inevitable drift into bureaucratic pathology.

My evolution as an administrative reformer therefore had a straightforward pattern—I spent countless times at conferences, meetings, fora, and seminars and inside books attempting to make sense of Nigeria’s administrative predicament while also simultaneously reflecting on the possible ways out of the bureaucratic conundrum.

Even though the level of dysfunction is enough to constantly induce depression and disillusionment, one of the high points of my engagement with the civil service system is that I got the opportunity to define and refine my understanding of the idea of public service, outside of the corruption of bureaucratic pathology.

How did the idea of the public service evolve, and what are the vocational intentions behind it? In part five of this series, I will sketch those core elements of the institution of the public service. And in part six, I will have the opportunity of outlining the personal vision of how the Nigerian civil service can overcome its limitations and deficiencies and move on to becoming a world class institution that we all dream about.

Dr. Olaopa is retired Federal Permanent Secretary

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