A lagging public service and our persistent bureaucratic challenge
“Within the civil service, it becomes quite normal that there are too many people who do nothing, too many people who do little and too few people who do too much”
— Tunji Olaopa, retired federal permanent secretary and professor of public administration.
The organizational structure of a country; his ability to be consistent, to make things happen, to innovate and to adopt new technologies and ideas are crucial determinants of his ability to grow, to get out of the ruts and to invite himself, if no one there invites you into the enchanted circle of the world’s most developed nations. Look around the globe, especially at the growth miracle countries of East Asia, and you will see the validity of this claim. Indeed, countries that have undisciplined, corrupt, lazy and unmanagerial public services and institutions take much longer to develop, tending to go in circles, especially because their public services lack discipline and the will to advance their societies.
In recent weeks, our public service has received renewed attention due to outcry and protests from federal retirees over the delay in benefits as well as the arrest by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission of the Accountant General of the Federation, Ahmed Idris, following allegations of gambling dangerously with almost 80 billion naira in national funds. Considering that one of the functions of the civil service is to administer and administer the finances of a state, this gargantuan embezzlement allegation can be likened to a guard who, during a robbery, practically seizes the gate itself, leaving the house wide open for serial thefts. looting.
To put things into perspective, we can paraphrase the coinage of the famous writer Chinua Achebe by saying: There was a public service. Remember the stars of public service who once ruled this country, such as CO Lawson, Allison Ayida and Simeon Adebo, among others, well known both at home and abroad, and you will see how quickly the function current public has rolled down the slope. There are too few names these days that can be associated with momentum, fresh ideas, transparency and the capacity for innovation. On the contrary and sadly, the national memory is plagued by the escapades of officials like Abdulrasheed Maina, chairman of the defunct pension reform task force who was sentenced to prison for 2 billion naira fraud and Mrs. Winifred Ekanem Oyo-Ita, who quit the service under controversial circumstances over a contract worth N3 billion.
That’s not to say there aren’t worthy public servants in the category identified by Olaopa in the opening quote as “too few people doing too much”; nevertheless, they are unfortunately little overshadowed by the majority categorized by Olaopa as “too many people who do nothing”. It is not even clear if they are doing nothing or if they are doing things that may endanger Nigeria in the form of draining its resources.
Why is this important? Partly because in the architecture of governance, the public service is an institution of enormous scope and importance. Some of its mandates include formulating and implementing policies, serving as advisers to the political class, ensuring the continuity of governments, constituting the repository of government information as well as safeguarding government resources and keeping records on how these resources are used.
In my opinion, it is almost the whole range of governance if one excepts the political functions attributed constitutionally to members of the political class. To put it bluntly, next year whoever becomes President of Nigeria will be able to take the oath, to find that he has, apart from the ministers, official companions among the civil servants who are discouraged, retarded, just waiting to win fast money at the frontiers of new politics and generally the kind of staff who don’t care much about the development race. That is to say, unless the public service is reinvigorated, reorganized and reinvented, all the talk of rapidly climbing the development ladder will be for naught.
Britain may not be a civil service paradise. Its detractors speak of red tape, a toxic work environment, infighting among other ills. Despite this, its civil service and other government institutions have passed a threshold of competence from which Nigeria can learn some lessons. An anecdote may shed some light. A few years ago a colleague of mine who had just returned from the UK, where he was undertaking studies in psychiatric medicine and was also a lecturer, rushed into my office in an enthusiastic mood. He barely greeted me before laying on my table a letter from the British Tax Office authorizing a refund of the taxes he paid beyond the stipulated amount to be sent to him. The money, the letter said, would be paid to him within a few days from the receipt of this letter. Hearing such an uplifting report, I seized the opportunity and we both danced to celebrate the good news. The money sent to him afterwards was enough, converted into naira, to buy him a car which he soon bought.
The takeaway for a Nigerian, of course, is this: will Nigeria ever grow at the rate it grows to reach such stature that the tax authorities can refund the overpayment of tax to any who, let alone someone living outside our shores? This incident should highlight the gap between countries with effectively functioning public services and those where the bosses and many of their underlings are almost perpetually “absent”. Needless to say, there is a connection between the working culture of the political class and that of the public service. Mr. Allison Ayida, Federal Permanent Secretary to Chief Obafemi Awolowo (then Minister of Finance), it was he who revealed that Awolowo had an impact on work ethic because while most other Ministers (they were called commissioners at the time) came late to the office and demanded that their permanent secretaries do the heavy lifting and forward the files to the minister for approval, Awolowo came to the office early, did most of the work on the table and forwarded the files to the permanent secretary. In other words, he gave advice, leadership and vision to the public service of his time.
We don’t know what’s going on these days, but it could well be that several ministers leave the strategic work to their permanent secretaries, who can either take advantage of it wisely or let it pass indolently or nonchalance. The point to be made, however, is that if an administration leaves the public service rudderless and leaderless or fails to commit to effective governance, it has no right to expect more than dithering from the part of the public service.
Overall, however, and given the strategic role of the civil service; it is important in case anyone is listening to do an overhaul of the civil service with a view to bringing it back to the glory days. This would involve less politicization, more merit-based standards, controlling corruption at source (not when the horse has already left the stable) as well as an overhaul of work ethics. Until and unless this is done, 2023 could be just a mirage in terms of improved governance.