Tuesday, 05 July 2022 11:46

[OPINION] Towards Reforming the Civil Service Reforms in Nigeria: A Research Agenda - Tunji Olaopa

In my recent commentaries, I have been worried about the state of public administration in Nigeria, and how these rebounds on the reform of the public service as a tool for development. And my worry derives from the near absence of a gatekeeping mechanism that ought to undergird the professionalism behind the public-spiritedness of a public servant. For instance, it is no longer news that the Nigerian Association of Public Administration and Management (NAPAM) is dead and buried. And its death, for me, signals the weakening of the generational debt that public administrators and public servants owe to those who have been charged to carry the responsibility of administering the Nigerian state and her development challenges. I have argued that if the present crop of public administrators and public servants—my generation—was mentored by the likes of Simeon Adebo, Sule Katagum, Jerome Udoji, through the Allison Ayidas, Phillips Asiodus, Ahmed Jodas, Abdul Aziz Attahs, Francesca Emanuel, Aminu Salehs, et al, it becomes a moral duty for us to also pass the baton of public service and professionalism to those coming behind.

The fundamental point for me, therefore, is that the critical players in the public administration communities of practice and service must rediscover their shared mission and stakes in not only resuscitating the dying profession, but also find ways to achieve concrete and collective actions that will facilitate the capacity to chart a new future for our cherished calling and profession. This requires deploying our generational capital towards rebuilding public administration as the core catalyst to regaining the soul of the Nigeria Project. I doubt that it bears defending that if public administration fails, all else fail. If a defining national conference to ventilate thoughts, ideas and way forward and to strengthen the hands of the current leadership corps of the civil service, is the way to go, the conference sure will require significant basic, policy-engaged and action research inputs and deep-seated reflective thinking. Hence this modest attempt on my part, as scholar-practitioner, to build on my earlier advocacy piece by also attempting to sketch out what I consider should be the baseline think-piece that could be reworked into a technical note that might constitute supportive research agenda for the suggested national conference on the future of the Nigerian civil service. Let me then pose my worry as a loaded question: Where is the new generation of public administration scholars and researchers, and what are their significant contributions to praxis and scholarship?

This question is fundamental for lots of reasons. I will identify just two. The names of Adebayo Adedeji, Ladipo Adamolekun, Ali D. Yahaya, Humphrey Nwosu, Kyari Tijani, Alex Gboyega, M. J. Balogun, Dele Olowu, Victor Ayeni, and policy scholars like Augustine Ikelegbe – the academics – and Simeon Adebo, Augustus Adebayo, Ntieyong U. Akpan, Ason Bur, George Orewa, Theophilus Akinyele, Ezekiel Oyeyipo – the scholar-bureaucrats - to name just a few, resonates in the annals of public administration in Nigeria, because they represent the best that the discipline and the profession could produce, even when public administration was struggling in Nigeria. These were people who knew their onions, and fought to bring the discipline to where it is today, given their own hurdles and challenges, in time and space. We can concede therefore, that these beacons of professional practice had NAPAM as a professional association that guided thoughts and practices. However, is the absence of that association sufficient to explain why there are only a handful of scholars and practitioners worthy of the stature of pioneer public administration scholars today? Like every aspect of Nigeria’s higher education dynamics, public administration scholarship has also succumbed to the craze for quantity, rather than the quality, of research outputs and publications, majorly as promotional requirements. This, as is to be expected, has sidetracked attention from the need for specialization, as well as the significant focusing on specific public administration and policy making institutional issues as research concerns.

There is also the increasing attenuation of the town-and-gown synergy that was one of the factors in the success stories of the pioneers of public administration and the public service in Nigeria, from Adebo and Udoji, and from Okigbo and Aboyade to the super-permanent secretaries. The town-and-gown initiative allowed scholars, from public administration to public policy to economics, for instance, to have fruitful rapport with public servants on issues of mutual concern, like the national development planning, economic policy, public finance, science and technology, personnel management, and other sector policies. Unfortunately, this sterling practice has been grossly desiccated by mutual distrust through the anti-intellectualism of the government and its officials, and the arrogant resentment of policy researchers and public administration scholars. While the practitioners decry the theoretical scholarship of the researchers, the latter dismiss the practitioners as being intellectually obtuse.

Quite fortunately, and paradoxically too, I have benefitted from both sides of the divide. And this is by reason of my work on numerous public service reforms strategy designs and implementation, and my doctoral program, which reached its height while I was the technical lead for the Federal Government’s Public Service Reform Strategy Team in 2002, through to the fundamental programmes design and implementation that metamorphosed into the establishment of the Bureau of Public Service Reforms (BPSR) in 2003, as well as into my career years as permanent secretary. From commencing the PhD through my responsibilities as a permanent secretary and as professor of public administration, I was able to formulate research questions over time, which, quite unfortunately, still resonate due essentially to the lack of significant attention to them. A few of these research questions suffices.

What kind of public service does Nigeria need to successfully manage the dynamics of democratic consolidation reinforced with a developmental state capable of providing required support as Nigeria enters the Fourth Industrial Revolution and its huge technological and knowledge backend? This research question is, for me, the most fundamental. It is a question that has been asked since Nigeria began experimenting with reforms, especially from the Udoji commission to date. This question encapsulates all the others, since the end of the public service reforms is to enable the emergence of a public service that a developmental state in Nigeria can rely upon. With the idea of a developmental state, this question rides on the need to honor the social contract between the government and the governed by inaugurating a public service that works in terms of efficiently achieving service delivery for the citizens. This, for instance, was instantiated with the service compact with Nigerians – the SERVICOM reform.

The emergence of an efficient public service in Nigeria is undergirded by a deeper objective that conduces to the well-being of Nigerians, and that is radically overhauling Nigeria’s productivity profile. Thus, the next research question: how does the reform of the public service system eventuate in the crafting of a new national productivity paradigm? This question speaks to perhaps one of the most fundamental reform hurdles in Nigeria’s governance and administrative challenges—the issues of the role of the state, institutional streamlining, rightsizing, redundancy and cost of governance. Nigeria’s presidentialism and democratic governance for instance have become too expensive to the point of suffocation. The wisdom of redundancy management commences with deep reflection on how to manage or contain cost of governance, while still achieving buy-ins and strategic partnership by labour unions who are most concerned about the deals their members will get through social assistance while shifting from the adversarial to being understandably and ostensibly developmental for the sake of country.

The issue of national productivity intersects that of an efficient public service and performance management. This leads us to generate the third research question: What are the appropriate human resource policies, pay structure and operational budget cum cost ratios that are most cost effective and consistent with the optimal productivity level of the national economy? This question enables administrative reformers, practitioners and policy researchers and academics to focus attention on the skills, competency and productivity deficits in the public service system through a rigorous program of re-professionalization and business model reprofiling. This is what I have called the imperative of creating a new generation of public managers with the capacity to rethink the intellectual bases of skills and the reskilling of the cadres, through a systematic injection of scarce skills to alter the IQ of service, and prepare it for the challenges of the Fourth Industrial Revolution in a vulnerable, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) postcolonial administrative environment.

In situating itself within the VUCA environment, the public service in Nigeria must not only battle operational and tactical issues, but also the concern of rebranding and reprofiling of its vocational essence. So many Nigerians have lost faith in the public service system as the conveyor of democratic service delivery within the pervasive theory that neither can governments in Nigeria deliver development nor are public institutions working. Hence the fourth research question: What cultural adjustments programme needs to be implemented as a rebranding imperative to undermine the moral and trust deficits of the public service in the public perception? The public service is a value-based institution, a vocational calling with public-spiritedness at its core. How can that public-spiritedness and values-based work culture be rescued?

Since the public service cannot be isolated from the national need for an ethical framework that binds all citizens and government officials in mutual institutional relations around a national integrity system, we arrive immediately at the fifth research question: What are the structural, institutional and ethical demands of a national integrity system that could strengthen public administration as bulwark against seemingly confounding incidences of bureaucratic corruption? Part of the transformation required is for the public service system to ditch its Weberian “I-am-directed” bureaucratic essence, or what Douglas McGregor refers to as Theory X, in a shift to a more flexible, entrepreneurial and open-government oriented paradigm, or what he calls Theory Y.

It is therefore within the context of the deconstruction of the Weberian institutional foundation of the public service to achieve the status of a world class institution that we generate the sixth research question: What should MDAs be doing differently within framework of performance managed systems and democratic consolidation? This is fundamentally a cumulated question that takes in all the other ones concerning the much desired image rebranding and operational reform of the public service. In other words, everything that is reformed about the system leads to the one question of how to get the MDAs efficiently and productively functional. And this question also leads to a correlative question: Since there cannot be an interregnum, how might the MDAs, in the intervening period, take advantage of technical supports and assistances from consultants, think tanks, subject specialists and international development partners especially in terms of learning, development, and skills transfer?

The last research question superintends all the others as a gatekeeping imperative: How should the agenda of resuscitating NAPAM as a professional gatekeeping platform for community of practice and service be achieved and harnessed to catalyse the overall objective of getting the public administration profession and management system back on track? One significant means of doing this, which has not really been under research focus, is the collective gatekeeping of the public administration curricula, knowledge pack and competency framework as well as institutional reengineering of public service training institutions or MDIs. This is one of the achievements of the pioneer public administrators at the Ife, Zaria, Nsukka and other institutes of administration in the 70s and 80s. It should be part of the remit of a revamped NAPAM.

This question takes us right back to where we started this piece—the concern about a platform that will serve as a generational purveyor of learning in ways that will keep pubic administration scholarship and public service public-spiritedness always at the edge of disciplinary and professional progress, and which will be leveraged to harness the vast and daily growing global knowledge fronters within carefully managed networks and knowledge management. These questions have been there all along, as soon as public administration and the public service system in Nigeria began nosediving. Part of the tragedy is that they have been lying under the surface of the collective and institutional rot for far too long, with no one caring about their significance. If we love this profession, and believe that public administration is a bulwark against national debility, then we can no longer ignore these research questions.

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