Getting the basics of public service reform right

WHAT does it take for the Nigerian public service to become a world class public institution with the capacity to take on the task of democratic service delivery that will empower Nigerians? There are so many answers to this question. This is simply saying that it will not do to simply say the public service must be reformed. We need the specifics of institutional reform to be able to know how far to take the systemic reset needed for the urgent structural transformation of the public service. I intend to supply one dimension of these answers in this article. This is very significant within the context of government’s institutional reform intention signaled either by the National Strategy for Public Service Reform (NSPSR) or any other. Indeed, Nigeria does not need to go through the route of developing a new national strategy for reforming the public service again. The country has strategies too many. What we need is a change management programme that expertly harnesses the legion of strategies, implementation plans, study reports, white papers, policy briefs, etc. generated since 1999 to implement changes, redesign, restructuring, reengineering, impact assessment of on-going reforms in a continuous learning and incremental improvement spiced with action research, technical supports, performance incentive funds, in sustained experimentation, trial and error, etc.

So, what are some base fundamentals that must be sorted to get the basics right? I shall only be able to touch on a very few for the purpose of this specific contribution. The first change plank has to do with wrestling with the Weberian model of the bureaucracy in a way that will enable us fashion for ourselves as Nigerians a new public service that is capacity ready to do what we want it to do in terms of efficient service delivery. What is the crucial challenge we face? The challenge is that the Nigerian public service system is locked in the grip of an administrative business model that has failed consistently to make the ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) deliver on their remits as the engine rooms of public service efficiency in Nigeria. And the source of this challenge is historical and colonial.

The Nigerian public service came into existence in 1954 through a constitutional change. This was through the Gorsuch Commission’s reform of 1954 which recommended the creation of a cadre division of civil service personnel corresponding to general education standard of the period. The four divisions were: sub-clerical and sub-technical; clerical and technical; executive and higher technical; and administrative and professional. Each of these divisions was further divided into cadres, i.e. the professional and the administrative classes. The Gorsuch Commission report had been preceded in 1946 by the Harragin reform which established the two-service structure:  “senior service” and “junior service”. It was this administrative cadre that was to become the core of the public service system in the newly independent Nigeria in 1960. This cadre system still determines the personnel and human resource dynamics of the public service till date. This personnel framework has two features. The first is seniority on the job drawn on the basis of social pedigree and education, and the second is a generalist orientation which ensures that the administrative cadre knows little or nothing about operational, tactical and strategic basis of policy intelligence and public sector management.

Apart from the distinct weakness of this structure of service arising from its hierarchical and formalized line of authority and chains of command, and the fact that the administrative cadre is usually clueless about the technical dimensions of operations, there is also no incentive for staff officers to become too proficient in a given area of specialization. It is therefore a point of applause that subsequent reforms of the public service system in Nigeria, since independence, has been concerned with rethinking the performance quotient of this generalist-professional distinction underlying the cadre system. Yet, even reform must be aligned to the existing reality to be effective. Now, this is where the criticism against the public service system in Nigeria becomes interesting. The baseline of this criticism is that the public service in Nigeria has become fundamentally bureaucratic in the sense that its basic operations have now become a serious hindrance to getting government business done efficiently. I have also majorly championed this criticism. I have argued that the Weberian model has aided a paradigm of corruption that allows the political leadership to use the bureaucracy not as a machinery of governance but as a centralized instrument for intervening in the economy and the society. The implication of this is that some of the bureaucrat’s defining features that ensure performance—neutrality, impartiality and anonymity—are compromised. The bureaucracy itself loses accountability and efficiency in the process.

But this is not all we can say about the bureaucratic model. There is a critique of the generalist-professional distinction that will enable us to take the performance of the public service system forward beyond what it is now. And this is that the idea of reforming the public service in Nigeria is not settled by dispensing with its bureaucratic model of doing government business. On the contrary, all that is required is for that model to be reformed in ways that enables meritocracy in recruitment and professionalismin operations. One of the fundamental planks of my reform model for transforming the public service in Nigeria is to put in place the process for recruiting a new breed of managers who will be able to manage the new dynamics required by the new public service that has the capacity to steer the public service through its many challenges of democratic governance. I have outlined what I called the optimal system model that will assist in the re-professionalization of the service. Significant elements of this optimal model include: (a) change of existing cadres into functional fields of specialization; (b) installation and activation of the full scope and capacity of an Integrated Public Human Resource/Payroll Information System; (c) professionalization of personnel administration functions at centre and line ministries levels; (d) new training policy and leadership development scheme; (e) institution of a new performance management  or performance appraisal and promotion systems; (f) anew pay, compensations and incentive system; etc.

The implication of this elements of the optimal system for the re-professionalization of the public service in Nigeria is that rather than advocating the abandonment of the Weberian bureaucratic model, we can enhance its functionality by infusing a technocratic culture that undermine the assumption that all that is needed in this age and time to achieve optimal function and strategic policy dynamics for the public service is a generalist competence and certification. It is also no longer a period where professionalism is dissected into being a specialist in engineering, medicine, education, administration, etc. On the contrary, the public service all across the world has been dragged into an evolving technological and knowledge age that possesses its own unique administrative imperative for achieving performance and productivity. Central to these imperatives of the knowledge age is the redefinition of the concept of professionalism and technocracy as skill set that enable us to rethink the idea of performance management underpinned by competency-based human resource management.

Re-professionalization implies a change in the culture of doing things which cannot occur simply by changing regulations, structures, processes and technology, but by changing the orientation of public servants through a robust competency-driven, competitive, people-centred re-professionalization scheme. This re-professionalization process constitutes a prominent dimension of the performance management system. This process involves, for instance, the need to evolve a new career management system leading to the acquisition of officers with capacities and skills in specialized fields of knowledge.This re-professionalizing framework will involve three fundamental issues. The first has to do with the urgent need to rethink the intellectual and administrative foundations of skills and competences for running the public service and doing government business. The critical skills for transforming the public service system into a world class public institution requires reformatting skills at three critical levels—the strategic, the tactical and the operational, Here, administrative seniority cannot be taken as a given. While this can count, it must be subsumed within the authority of competence and talent management sensitivity. The public service needs to be urgently reskilled especially with emphasis on the tactical and the operational, and with emphasis on management skills like ICT, people management, communication, and so on.

The second issue that re-professionalization demands has to do with the demands of strategic reskilling in the public service. best practices around the globe demands the creation of senior executive service (SES) that will constitute the functional brain of the service in terms of high-end competences backstopped by a rewarding condition of service that instigate performance and productivity. Bob Garratt warns that the fish gets rotten first from the head. And this resonates with the strategic requirements of the public service as the driver of optimal functionality of the system.

The third issue that re-professionalization requires is the need to facilitate institutional safeguards against administrative inbreeding that weakens the capacity of the public service to learn and unlearn strategically. When a system turns regularly on its own hinges without any creative touch with the challenges of its environment in ways that enable the system itself to transform itself creatively. This creativity applies in two sense. The first is the capacity of the system to ensure that officers become technocratic. This culture demands that a public officer must be a serial master skilled in multiple competences and able to be promoted to every position. On the other hand, the system must also be willing to inject fresh talents from other sectors. All these will require multisectoral sabbaticals, exchange programs. This is also further strengthened by mentoring and coaching dynamics and very strong associational life for public servants.

Reform is a complex business, as I have often reiterated. And its complexity is often not due to some monotonous operational framework setting but more to a creative assessment and reassessment of what is needed and how it could be facilitated to achieve the best result for making the public service capacity ready. Re-professionalizing the public servant is a key reform component that demands creative ingenuity, especially from the deployment of performance assessment instruments to achieve skills and competences that delivers the goods of productivity.

  • Professor Olaopa, Executive Vice-Chairman, Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP), writes via tolaopa@isgpp.com.ng.
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