In the first part of this conversation, we saw the productive meeting of a young PhD in public administration and an older public servant at a public function in Abuja. The discussion was focused on the critical differences between the old Weberian administrative system and the emerging new public service motivated by the managerial revolution in public administration. The old and retired public servant provided historical insights into how the Nigerian public service evolved out of the colonial administration, and the challenges of building a postcolonial administrative system that would make Nigeria work. The young man also outlined the challenge of modernizing the public service system that the old man and all his colleagues left behind.
The two had to meet again because the issues at stake demanded that they become good friends who had a lot to discuss on how the public service institution can be taken forward in terms of reform. They both agreed that the public service was the most significant institution Nigeria requires for national development.
The young man was in his office and had been checking the wall clock for the past thirty minutes. His surprise began the following day after meeting the erudite old public servant at a function in Abuja. He had never forgotten the productive conversation they had. That discussion had shed a lot of light on the historicity of the public service in Nigeria that he had not been able to glean from his doctoral research. And then the following day, he had received a text message from the old man, asking for an appointment. They both agreed to 11 O’clock.
By 10’57am, there was a knock on his door, and in came the old man dressed in a striking white agbada with a cap to match. The young man jumped up from his seat and raced around the table to offer the old man a seat. “You’re most welcome sir. Do please have a seat!”
“Thank you so much. How have you been?” asked the old man.
“I have been fine sir,” the young man replied. “I have not recovered from our conversation when we first met sir. When I got back home, I jot down a lot that I gained from your insights into how the public service evolved.”
“I am glad you gained a lot. I also benefitted from the conversation. And that is precisely the reason why I had to see you again. You see, old people have this uncontrollable urge to talk and keep talking.” They both laughed at the joke.
The old man adjusted himself on the seat. “What can I offer you sir?” the young man asked, already seated behind the table. “I am fine; maybe just a bottle of water,” the old man responded. The young man pressed the intercom and spoke with a clerical officer to get the bottle of water.
“I was at the 2019 Nigerian Economic Summit in Abuja two days ago, and something someone said made a deep impression on me. I thought I could discuss what he said with you, and see how that impacts our earlier discussion on the future of the public service in Nigeria.” The old man took a sip from the glass of water that the clerical officer had placed beside him.
“I will like to hear your observation sir,” the young man leaned forward on his seat.
“The man that made the comment is Mr Aighoje Aig-Imokhuede. You might have heard about him. He was the former CEO of Access Bank Plc, and the chairman of the African Initiative for Governance (AIG).”
“Wow! That rhymed with his name prefix!”
“Ah…I did not even think about that. Anyway, Mr. Aig-Imokhuede hit the nail on the head that given the magnitude of Nigeria’s development complexities and the depth of policy intelligence, there is a compelling demand to think without the box. That is, critical stakeholders must put pressure on government to engineer sufficient deep systemic changes that ensures that a new generation of the very best talents builds up in the public sector.”
“Thinking without the box?”
“Yes. The demands of transforming the public service for national development in Nigeria require a radical reflection that compels thinking without the box, rather than outside of it,” the old man explained. He took a sip of water. Aig-Imokhuede is therefore merely rehearsing the sense that Elaine C. Kamarck expressed in his 2007 book The End of Government …as we know it: Making Public Policy Work, that “the government we were trying to reform … (is) functioning, but at the same time hopelessly obsolete”. And if with 9/11 the almighty US came to same reality, that the public “organizations that had defeated the Nazis …were no match for a handful of terrorists”; became helpless when a massive hurricane hit New Orleans, and that it requires a government more flexible, more creative, and more able to cope with uncertainty, how much more should a decrepit de-professionalized Nigerian bureaucracy “face up to the fact that it had been built in another era and was practically impotent in the face of problems of the 21st century”
“I have been doing a research on the developmental state in Africa. In all literature on the matter, the public service is critical to the transformation of the state into a development-focused institution, and the further transformation of public services that immediately becomes the major focus of any developmental state. The sad finding of my research is that Nigeria is not yet a developmental state.” The young man finished talking and leaned back in his seat, dejected.
The older man was also not smiling. The discussion had reached a crucial juncture.
“There, my friend is the main reason why it seems that the Nigerian public service is irreformable. It is very simple: the political and administrative leaderships are out of sync with each other and the reality of the new age. There is no direction from one to the other, and there is no guideline by which they could operate in a seamless relationship. And once the head becomes rotten, the entire body becomes diseased.”
The young man leaped up from his seat, as if propelled by an unseen force: “That’s Bob Garratt’s thesis sir! The fish gets rotten from the head first. And once the head of what ought to be a developmental state is compromised by governance disease, then the whole body politic is dis-eased.” The young man concluded breathlessly. The old man nodded in admiration. “You’re correct, my friend,” he said. “Check the trajectory of successes of the advanced administrative societies—from the United States to Canada, from Singapore to New Zealand, and even from Botswana to Rwanda—you see not only a leadership commitment, but also a constant attempt at re-professionalizing the public service to keep bringing it up to par with modern challenges and governance innovation.”
The old man took another sip while the young man attended quickly to a secretary that brought a file for his attention. When he was done, he focused his attention again on the old man. “I agree with you, dear sir. There are so many things we need to learn from best practices across the world. I remember that in my doctoral classes, we had several case studies we examined—the UK, Singapore, and even Japan.”
“Exactly! There are four specific examples like that I want us to discuss: the UK from the Margaret Thatcher era, Japan, Singapore or New Zealand, and Nigeria.”
“Is that not a paradox sir? We are here citing Nigeria as an example of good practice, yet we are not willing to learn from our own administrative insights,” the young man remarked sardonically.
“What I have learnt, what I think I want to pass to you as a representative of the younger generation of administrators, is that mere operational or technicist effort at effecting administrative changes will not achieve any longstanding reform of the public service. The attempt to transform service delivery, national culture of work, national productivity profile and national economic transformation must be assessed vis-à-vis the understanding of politics, governance and policy impacts. We cannot reform for reforming sake and not examine how the reform would impact the citizens, and how the political climate of the state hinders or promote administrative reform.” The old man exhaled, and reached for the glass of water again. The young man had been taking notes from what the old man was saying.
“Take the UK, as a good example. Its re-professionalization efforts recognized the core of the managerial revolution and the challenge posed to the public service by the private sector. So, Thatcher brought in Lord Rayner, the CEO of Mark and Spencer to head the public service in the 80s. we should count that as one of the fundamental foundations upon which the present successes of the UK public service are erected.”
The young man kept scribbling, and nodding his head simultaneously.
The old man continued: “The UK experiment was something that interested me even after leaving the public service. It was a comprehensive reform that refocused the system and its business model especially through a reinvention of the performance management dynamics. First, the reformer came to the realization that the public service needed to focus strictly on its core functions and outsourced the non-core functions to autonomous executive agencies. MDAs were then taken through rigorous efficiency scrutiny to eliminate waste and redundancy.”
“Of course. This house cleaning was complemented by a new system of performance management which entails a greater use of targets, performance contracts, and market mechanisms as methods for controlling service delivery agents,” the young man added.
“Yes. However, one very significant development which Nigeria will do well to take note of is the creation of a Unit in the Prime Minister’s Office to maintain an institutional pressure for the reform of all public sector institutions. It also provides technical support to reforming agencies and deploys best practice tools and instruments to report on progress.”
“The Bureau of Public Service Reform (BPSR) is similar.
“And there is one difference: The reform unit in the Prime Minister’s Office carried out regular capability review on the basis of which the reform action of each MDA was crafted into a performance improvement plan,” the old man was now standing and strolling.
“I see the pattern clearly now. Re-professionalization cannot be divorced from good governance. Isn’t that what post-war Japan also did by inviting three experts—Edward Deming, Joseph Duran and Armand Feingenbaum—together with the country’s manufacturers, suppliers, bankers, industries and so on to form a unique dynamic of economic cooperation that would capacitate the relationship between economic growth, development, productivity and performance.”
“You’re correct. Japan saw immediately that the government had no capacity to deal with the reconstruction effort after the war. Private sector input was needed, and especially with regard to quality of service delivery management and the workforce quality control. The core of Japan’s productivity achievement can be highlighted as follows: (a) Better design of products to improve service; (b) Higher level of uniform product quality; (c) Improvement of product testing in the workplace and in research centers; and (d) Greater sales through global markets. And this takes us immediately to the reform experiences of Singapore and New Zealand. These countries took re-professionalization as a challenge to their human resource management and its capacity to institute a meritocratic and competency-based human resource management in the public service.”
The young man interjected again: “This is not just an issue of mere certification that filled the system with generalists with no idea of what the new knowledge society demands from public managers. The new knowledge workers must be multidisciplinary instead.”
“Again, you got it right. Indeed, the immediate grasp of the personnel issue, public service values and its relationship to performance and productivity was the good fortune that became the foundation of Chief Simeon Adebo administrative legacy.” The old man smiled with joy. He was on familiar terrain now. I can still remember the thorough administrative process that brought me into the service.” he sighed with the burden of remembrance. The young man also sighed. “And then, Adebo would return from his regular meetings with Chief Obafemi Awolowo, and lay before us new policy dynamics we were supposed to run with. We had our clear-cut policy directions. All we needed to do is to marshal the administrative machinery to making these policies happen.”
“And they happened, sir!” the young man nearly shouted. He calmed down, and then asked the question that was on both their minds” “Why then aren’t we seeing these reform pathways to making Nigeria a developmental state?”
It was then time for the old man to take his leave.
Prof. Tunji Olaopa is a retired Federal Permanent Secretary and Professor of Public Administration
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