Civil Service Reform, Not Rocket Science: Avoiding Mistakes of Past Reforms

Professor Tunji Olaopa

Tunji Olaopa

Institutional reform advocacy is essentially about critical optimism in the face of significant institutional dysfunction. To be an institutional reformer and not be an optimist is, for me, a contradiction in terms. Optimism is what keeps sustaining the belief of the reformer in the possibility of transformation. Without such a belief, the reformer has no business in the space of institutional reform. This is the optimism that I have developed over time, after I made up my mind to dedicate myself to researching the historical and administrative dynamics that led to the institutional dysfunction of the Nigeria public service system.

This same optimistic realism has sustained me through various government succession since the Babangida administration. And it is a similar but even more potent optimistic assessment of what is realistically possible that I am bringing to my assessment of the Tinubu administration and its emerging determination to succeed at all cost. Despite the legitimacy and credibility contestations swirling around the administration at the moment but which the Presidential Election Petition Tribunal (PEPT) has happily put behind us, there is no doubt that the Tinubu presidency is aware of its historical mandate as a critical juncture in the bid to better the lots of Nigerians. And so, given the direction of its policy maneuvers so far, and in spite of the many concessions to realpolitik, I am assured that a mostsignificant game-changing dynamic, more potent and with a great chance of succeeding than I have witnessed since 1979, might be unfolding.Of course, there are many policy areas that the government is still apparently struggling to make sense of, but I am encouraged by the administration’s open-mindedness and humility in searching for directions to take.

We cannot however make the mistake of taking the success of this government for granted as a foregone conclusion. Development success, from the many lessons of history, requires hard work in many directions and at many levels. And one thing that the new administration has going for it, as a guiding landmark, are the many glaring mistakes of the past which ought to serve as the basis for continuous learning and strategic framework moderated by critical success factors that must be injected into the government thinking. One fundamental critical factor necessary for determining national transformation, which the administration itself has decisively put a finger on, is the reform of the civil service.

The bureaucracy is a necessary complement to the administrative success of any government. Indeed, it is fundamentally central to the functionality of democratic governance. It would however be most presumptuous for me to argue that a government cannot succeed without the civil service that is capability ready (even though it already has a bureaucracy that is stuck in its own complexities). Of course, this concession derives from a fringe literature that any government that depends on the variability of the civil service for its policy direction has already failed before even taking off.  One strategy that many governments have taken on, since the 1980s, involved setting up parallel structures that allowed them to sidestep the focused and often onerous task of reforming the bureaucracy.

This goes against the grain of those historical examples of resolute government interventions that took seriously the task of reprofiling and reforming their civil service. We can easily recall the decision that earn Margaret Thatcher the moniker of the “Iron Lady”: the uncompromising resolve to reform the British civil service and undermine the adversarial labour relation that was holding Britain back. We cannot also forget the role that the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) played in post-war Japan and her resolve to overcome her economic deficit and regain her leadership in global affairs. Back home, the old western region and the Awolowo-Adeboadministrative model, as well as the unparalleled success of Gowon’s super permanent secretaries, signal how paying attention to the reform of the civil service can give the lie to neglecting it. Indeed, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the head of government of the old western region, gave a glowing tribute to the civil service of the region and its capability readiness, under Chief Simeon Adebo, to implement the policy imperatives of the Action Group (AG).

And yet, many successive Nigerian governments, since independence, have also taken the unproductive direction of sidetracking civil service. And this could explain why, in a sense, the system has been characterized by over-bloatedness. After all, most of the personnel of the parallel structures that government set up end up getting offloaded into the service.

This is both the theoretical and administrative background that set the tone for the direction in which the Tinubu administration must situate its civil service reform framework. To even be able to jumpstart its resolute determination to hinge the success of the administration on a reform of the capability readiness of the civil service, the government needs to first pose to itself and answer three fundamental questions that lies at the heart of institutional reform in Nigeria. The first question concerns the nature and dynamics of government business: what needs to change in the way the business of government has been conducted so far in order to transform its efficiency through change management dynamic that enables it to deliver the government’s development agenda? The second question has to do with the temporal shelf life of the administration: how does the administration manage what it can realistically achieve in the period of four years that will enable its 8-Point Agenda to effectively manage a democratic service delivery to Nigerians? And the last question is procedural: which of the MDAs are critical to delivering the policy expectations contained in the 8-Point Agenda and, as a corollary, which governmental procedures and processes have the negative capacity of hindering the positive unraveling of the government’s development agenda?

These three critical questions are motivated by the axiom that Nigeria cannot expect any fundamental transformation if we keep following the logic of governance and institutional reform that have failed to yield any cogent results in the past. And, as we hinted earlier, the Tinubu administration does not need, in any way, to reinvent the wheels in answering these three questions. It has at its disposals not only the institutional errors and false steps of the past sixty-three years, but also many significant and heavily researched policy, governance and administrative documents that detailed critical reform issues since 2001. A critical example suffices. Specific researches have outlined the critical issues involved in the fundamental dynamics undermining the conduct of government business. These include, among others: (a) transforming the current outmoded input-process that underlie the business model to include an output-outcomes result framework; (b) undermining the skill and competency gaps; (c) achieving clarity on actions required to execute plans, sectoral activities and departmental/unit programs; (d) putting in place an adequate performance monitoring and reporting system; (e) removing the existing organizational silos mentality and the culture of hindering policy execution; and (f) adequately defining a framework of rewards and sanction.

These initial questions only prepare the Tinubu government for confronting the big issues involved in really summoning the political will to tackle the complexity of reforming the civil service. And the first really crucial point to note is that it will be somewhat counterproductive to take on the reform of the civil service in the mold as confronting the fuel subsidy removal or the policy dealing with the multiple exchange rates for the naira. One good reason is that the present fiscal challenge Nigeria is currently undergoing will not make that reform policy strategy a good one. In other words, institutional reform and its implementation complexities are too expensive to be taken on in one fell swoop. Nigeria’s current fiscal travails cannot handle it at all. Reform methodology specifies the critical policy choices that governments make in determining the framing of the reform strategy in terms of program design and the change management strategies.

One of such policy choices involves determining whether reform methodology to adopt will slide in favor of comprehensiveness or selectivity. Taking on a comprehensive—root and branch—systemic reform, in the mode of the National Strategy for Public Service Reform (NSPSR) document of 2007 (which is the framework for reform implementation actions to date), should strictly be avoided by the Tinubu administration. One immediately obvious reason for this is that since institutional reforms take time to sufficiently gestate for results, the time frame they need to come to fruition does not adequately align with the four-year tenure of most administrations. This is one of the fundamental reasons past reform efforts failed to make huge impacts in the lives of Nigerians. And, for this administration, this reason is equally in tandem with the earlier argument that Nigeria’s fiscal condition forbids a comprehensive reform methodology.

The reform wisdom in this case therefore insist, as a matter of administrative and governance imperative, that rather than going all in—especially as counseled by existing reform documents which quite unfortunately are largely process oriented—it is more strategic to adopt a mix of reform selectivity, more competent phasing and sequencing protocols as well as a significantly creative change management dynamics. Within the confine of a really smart and globally compliant change management protocols, modernizing the public service and making it capability ready for backstopping the developmental state Nigeria wants to be, entails committing the government’s political will to achieve the following:

  • basic housekeeping changes;
  • getting the basics of reform sufficiently right;
  • implementing system-wide performance improvement programme; and
  • implementing deep-seated systemic and structural changes usually through a mix of restructuring, reengineering and culture change, ostensibly for paradigm shifting from the bureaucratic to performance-rooted neo-Weberian model underpinned by a mix of the entrepreneurial and technocratic which benchmark protocols like the ISO 9000 world-class rebranding as one of its value propositions.

Let us then assume, for the sake of pushing forward our line of argument, that the Tinubu administration will adopt the methodology of reform selectivity in moving forward its 8-Point Agenda for transforming the Nigerian economy, and in a critical sense, therefore, making a strategic decision to deliberately choose the battles it can fight and win, then there is a specific and time-tested direction for a reform action plan. Two dimensions of this action plan are strategic and should be immediate. The first one is that, given the urgent need for the symbolic significance of signaling governance achievement on the psyche of Nigerians, and hence the need for low-hanging fruits, the Tinubu government will be wise to adopt the method of phasing its reform programme, starting with those that will enable the rewiring of the institutional IQ of the civil service system, as well as rehabilitateits capability readiness to be able to adequately provide the support the administration badly requires to succeed. Again, in tandem with the earlier warning about reform comprehensiveness, there are too many damning creative and systemic destabilization that the labour unions will resists and which will keep bogging the administration down.

It will also be a huge and strategic policy move for the administration to prioritize its attention not simultaneously on all public service institutions. Rather, a few MDAs must be targeted and situated at the forefront of the governance and administrative reform. These will include in the first category (a) those institution with the capabilities to deliver jobs and create wealth, (b) those saddled with the mandate of maintaining peace and security, and (c) those implementing national priority programs. In the second category will be institutions that regulate rules-based market players, investment, SMEs and the rule of law. And in the third category are the set of institutions that facilitates welfare-oriented social impact, services and human capital development.Here, the public-private partnership becomes very critical as a capacity enhancement strategy the government must factor into the performance mode of its institutions.

With the immeasurable technical support that the NESG is providing to government at the moment, reinforcement provided by a carefully accredited consortium within a programme management front office (PMO) framework will also be a good short-term arrangement. This should come on after MDAs capability review has been undertaken to develop a targeted performance improvement plan which should be implemented with every urgency to enable the government to competently implement its development agenda. This can then further be complemented by the setting up of an expert-led Service Delivery Unit in the Presidency, if it is not already in place. The Unit will be responsible for facilitating MDAs in planning their service delivery programmes and for handholding in the focusing of citizens demand side of their service charter that leverages carefully designed SERVICOM instruments and frameworks. The Unit will also create platforms for MDAs’ peer review to enable sharing, learning and benchmarking.

The second urgent action plan the government needs to take seriously in rejigging the capacity of the system is to thoughtfully, systematically and humanely purge the service of redundancies through the offloading of the chaffs to expand the grains. This is to be able to achieve, one, a significant reduction of personnel cost, two, to enable reinvestment of the efficiency savings as enhanced pay and incentives that could attract and retain talents to the service, and three, to significantly save the cost accruing from the system’s virtual dependence on the technical support provided by policy experts, consultancy firms, and development agencies which will always be required but now reprofiled within a win-win logic.

But one needs to sound a note of warning here so that the new administration will not also fall into the same tradition of benchmarking policy failures around downsizing and rightsizing curated by the institutional traps and conditionalities of the World Bank and the IMF. And this is even all the more that the government has commenced a wide-ranging forensic audit of the civil service that is meant to achieve two-sided cost of governance objective. One, to determine the credibility of current payroll databases and validate staff numbers; and two, detect fraud that is being perpetuated in the payment procedures. What should be added is the correlative audit of staff numbers that targets the terrible phenomenon of redundancies which has a huge role to play in cost of governance containment. And, also important, in establishing staff number as part of the audit of the payroll. And this must be done in a way as to also account for, for instance, the ratio of doctors, policemen, teachers, and other professionals to the population within framework of global benchmarks.

Downsizing and rightsizing cannot be taken for granted; even given the noble objective of cost containment it wants to achieve. It takes some delicate and sensitive policy intelligence not to allow a good corrective exercise to fall headlong into the usual reform trap that emasculate previous administration and undermine their governance achievements. There are several things to note and issues to consider in order to make a success of rightsizing. The first is that the government must never make the mistake of making the bloated service strictly an issue of the size of the wage bill. It is a complex issue that also concerns deeper issues like reassessing the role of the state in developmental matter (for instance, making it more regulatory rather than that of the sole provider of services) and the strategic distribution of human resources within the system. One should also not forget that the size of the service might equally be the function of the degree of centralization of the function assigned solely to the federal government which overlooks the significance of constitutional devolution, as well as how past policies have not been able to achieve statutory deregulation that could aid efficiency.

But then, the issue of the wage bill also has a fundamental impact on the optimal functionality of the public service. But the real issue must be to consider any policy on reducing the public sector wage bill in line with how such a policy will weigh on a comparable framework with other sectors and other contexts. This is critical because the government has a significant competitor in the private sector, as well as other countries’ wage dynamics. The implication therefore is not just that the government’s wage bill is large, but that the government needs to focus on achieving a compensation package that is competitive, affordable, attractive and effectively link incentive and pay with performance. The Tinubu government must therefore take seriously, in fashioning a wage and compensation package, the Hertzberg 2-factor theory that hygiene and motivation are crucial to achieving employee satisfaction and performance for productivity. Hygiene results from salary and incentives, while motivation derives from recognition in the workplace and how conducive the workplace is in every sense reinforcing to professionalism.

Ultimately, the government must never lose sight of the fundamental objective of achieving cost containment through rationalization, and that is the emergence of a smaller, flexible and efficient civil service that is not only re-professionalized but also possesses the adequate size and skill-competency composition that effectively and efficiently backstops government function at an optimal level required for democratic governance and service delivery. Such a new bureaucracy must also be concerned with restoring merit as the basis for reconfiguring a competency-based HR practices and dynamics. This speaks in tandem with President Tinubu’s affirmation of the need for a government of national competence that can then cascade down to the gatekeeping needed by the public service to be filled with competent professionals who can be trusted to make policies work for democratic governance.

All the above is not rocket science. Institutional reforms have been carried out successfully all across the world, and they are often the difference between a state that is developmental and the one that is not. What ensures that difference is not the dearth of reform ideas, processes, procedures, paradigms and strategies which are available on a global basis, waiting to be efficiently adopted and adapted. On the contrary, a state sets itself on the path of economic progress and infrastructural development when its leadership summons the political will to push reform agenda through its entire messy implementation trajectory to its logical end. This is what could make the Tinubu administration truly transformational. And this is exactly where my reform optimism lies.

*Tunji Olaopa

Retired Federal Permanent Secretary

& Professor of Public Administration