Inaugurating the Federal Civil Service Commission as a Reform Hub

President Bola Tinubu, right and Professor Tunji Olaopa, Chairman, Federal Civil Service


Today President Bola Tinubu will inaugurate and swear-in the newly reconstituted Federal Civil Service Commission today, 13 December, 2023, during the Federal Executive Council (FEC) weekly meeting. Thereafter they will resume today to undertake the handing over ceremony at the Commission.

Here, Professor Tunji Olaopa, Chairman,
Federal Civil Service Commission,
carefully documented his initial reform ideas and thoughts in response to the President’s charge (in the press release signed by Ajuri Ngelale appointing them) to the team in his today’s inaugural speech which he expanded into a major comprehensive essay. The import of the piece is to offer a baseline set of ideas which will be iterated in subsequent deliveries and events, after their consolidation with those of the Head of the Civil Service of the Federation, body of permanent secretaries, and other core stakeholders.

This , according to him, “will set in motion a thinking process for a stakeholders process driven dynamics to drive public service institutional reform going forward, to reform the reforms, and at once inject fresh ideas.”

Below is the piece:

Inaugurating the Federal Civil Service Commission as a Reform Hub

Tunji Olaopa

Over the course of my sojourn in the public service and my consistent advocacy for governance and institutional reforms, I have come to deeply appreciate the fundamental difference between seeking a position that allows for transformation and actually occupying such a position and using it to transform reform objectives into tangible achievements. This was what raced through my mind as I was inaugurated as the Chairman of the Federal Civil Service Commission (FCSC) by the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. And my apprehension was (and still is) all the more serious given the fact that Nigerians have started rating the leadership and governance performance of President Bola Ahmed Tinubu right from the moment he took the oath of office and read his now momentous inauguration speech.

From May 2023 when he took office till now, a short span of seven months, the lives of millions of Nigerians have been impacted somewhat with multiplex, even though paradoxical and pregnant dimensions, requiring urgent solutions to restore normalcy to our nation that needs now as never before innovative problem-solving methods which Mr. President is fervently committed to.

I have made the vocal argument, since I began publishing my public commentaries, that the public service is a sine qua non for good governance in Nigeria. Without a reformed public service, the task of public administration and governance becomes arduous and almost insurmountable. This is because it is the public service and the public administration dynamics that undergird it that serve as the mechanism for translating the policies of government into tangible development in the form of optimal performances that generate durable and sustainable infrastructures for Nigerians.

This efficient service-delivery is the basic backbone of democratic governance anywhere in the world. Thus, when the public service becomes untidily bureaucratic and hence inefficient, the government crumbles and becomes, so to say, only mechanically weightless, weld-less and wield-less. All Nigerians are aware of how unduly bureaucratic the public service is. And all Nigerians bear the terrible and traumatic brunt of the near absence of good infrastructure – good highways, drinkable water, efficient healthcare delivery system, sound educational sector, and sustainable security – that could transform the quality of their lives.

This is where my apprehension lies: at the core of transforming the public service is the FCSC and its human resource mandate to facilitate the recruitment, training, capacitation, promotion and disciplining of civil servants into a highly efficient, professional and performing workforce. One at that to make the Nigerian public service system a high-performing institution for backstopping democratic governance under the watch of President Tinubu at a time, this dire time, when everything is so hard for everyone needing redemption which they rightly hope that President Tinubu will give them. However, the FCSC as at now is seemingly not ready to function optimally and drive the reform of the public service in the right direction. And this is precisely the position that the eleven federal commissioners and I in concert with other core stakeholders are expected to change.

This expectation is set against the background that in spite of the many reforms launched and implemented to date in the annals of the civil service in Nigeria, not much has changed. Indeed, the expectation of Mr. President and the entire country is focused on our capacity to turn the FCSC around so that it could perform a human resource reengineering that will turn the public service into an optimal machine for governance and administrative transformation.

This is the very core of the expectation of Mr. President from us:

“The President anticipates that the new FCSC leadership will competently facilitate the transformation, reorientation, and digitization of the Federal Bureaucracy to enable, and not stifle, growth and enhanced private sector participation in the development of the Nigerian economy, in full adherence to the Renewed Hope Agenda of his administration.”

Transformation, reorientation and digitization is a tall order but should be straightforward enough when all things are equal. Alas, all things are rarely equal in matters of reform, more so when the challenge is as steep and complex as revamping Nigeria’s beleaguered public service. Almost all enlightened or knowledgeable Nigerians know what a bureaucracy looks and functions like. We visit federal and state secretariats and encounter red-tape; we try paying tariffs and meet unscrupulous public servants; there are over-zealous public functionaries-regulators in government law-enforcement agencies; we are forced to give bribes or “tip” government workers for what they are supposed to do ordinarily; and many more. All these happen all over the world too, but they are worse where there are no institutional mechanisms for protecting the citizens from unprofessional attitudes and tendencies that cannot but constitute gross misconduct. This is why institutional reforms are critical. Clearly, the Nigerian public service has had its fair share of institutional reforms since the public service came into existence. However, all the models, paradigms and procedures that seem to work in some other climes keep failing in Nigeria. The question we need to ask then is: What is wrong with the public service in Nigeria?

I have a sense of what the answer to this question entails. And my response derives from many years of being an insider with expert insights into almost every aspect of the public service dynamics, from being a speechwriter, administrative officer, strategist, and policy analyst at the Presidency to being reform programme director to being a permanent secretary, and thereafter as an academic, trainer, consultant. I have been in many offices, served on many committees (local, regional and international) and thoroughly understand the basics and fundamentals of the public service rules and regulations, the theoretical underpinnings and the global best and smart practices. Added to this, I have also very thoroughly researched the theoretic and practical dimensions of public administration and the framework of the public service system in Nigeria, in comparison with other critical institutions across the world.I am not being immodest: My effort is motivated by the need to understand why the public service in Nigeria is the way it is and what can be done to transform it.

Two factors are responsible for what ails the public service system in Nigeria. The first is Nigeria’s leadership deficit, both political and bureaucratic. By this, I refer to the entire dynamics of the type of bad politics that the Nigerian political class play with the destiny of Nigeria; a nation that has all it takes to become a great global economic player with the capability to transform the quality of life of its citizens. This bad politics has obstructed the establishment of a developmental state structure and an active citizenry united by a concerted action to put civic responsibility before selfish primitive accumulation.

The second factor is what we all know as the “Nigerian factor”: the collusion of all of us in undermining the capacities of our systems to become efficient and serve us all. Even though we all complain about how inefficient and exhausting this public institutional dysfunction is, we are still all too eager to circumvent, evade and compromise the system at all points, and make it more dysfunctional. The Nigerian factor is the logic that says nothing can work in Nigeria.

That logic gets increasingly mired in the vicious cycle in which our experiences say nothing can work while our collective action keeps it that way. The inevitable consequence is that the system thus gets increasingly lost in a self-reinforcing cycle of dysfunction that makes it less optimal and more difficult to improve performance and hence productivity. And this is where I feel an enormous weight of empathy for my colleagues still in the service, and deeply salute the courage that has kept them working in the muddy trench to keep such a dysfunctional system going in order to keep up a modicum of institutional and infrastructural administrative presence in the lives of Nigerians. Nigerians deserve more in terms of the dividends of democratic governance, and my colleagues deserve even more in terms of their vocational resilience.

I could begin to outline the technical and administrative details of how dysfunctional the public service system in Nigeria is. And these details are derived basically from my aforementioned background as an expert-insider who has roamed every administrative nook and cranny of the service and has been a public intellectual and reform advocate since leaving the service. Furthermore, I have studied all types of administrative, academic and practical materials that analyze and compare Nigeria’s public service and public administration frameworks with other countries. Indeed, as my numerous public commentaries must have revealed, I was drawn into the onerous and interesting task of researching the public service because of the institutional dysfunction from the perspective of implementation research: what historical, political and administrative factors led the public service to its present status as an inefficient structure? And why is it that many homegrown, regional and global best practices have consistently failed to work in Nigeria?

But this is where my appointment as the Chairman of the FCSC becomes really interesting. I am sure there are some who perceive my professional persona as that of an administrative theoretician; someone who knows book too much to be gifted with a practitioner’s critical perspective on what ails the public service. Such a perception would be wrong essentially, and I intend to quickly, intentionally and consistently debunk that notion especially as is given vent by many who should know better, and many others who are simply mischievous.

Anyone who knows and have read and listened to me immediately knows what I have been saying about the public service. I believe Mr. President knows what he is doing by making these appointments. Just like I have written on several occasions, I am fully aware of President Tinubu’s capacity to harness competencies and human capital to get the work done. He has proven that several times. And that places its own burden on me, the eleven commissioners and the entire FCSC and, by extension, the core administrative leadership of the service as a matter of generational opportunity. To whom much is given much is expected. I am not embarking on a piggyback ride. I shall perform exceedingly well. My fellow appointees will hopefully do the same. We are not piggyback riders; I restate and reiterate.

Hence this is not just a chance for us to make the difference in the reforming of the institutional reforms, a commitment on which I have reflected and written so much about. It represents for me the highest opportunity to demonstrate a readiness to take on what I have often considered the Nehemiah challenge—a patriotic call to build the broken walls of one’s country with the full realization that there will be difficulties along the way and that one will eventually be called to render account to the one who has done one this honour, and ultimately to the Almighty. This understanding of my appointment – as far as I am concerned – transcends the boundaries of patriotism, credentials or commitment; it is my sense of the sacredness of the responsibility committed into my hands measured by divine upliftment.

These are trying times for Nigeria and Nigerians. And if I am allowed to allude to Thomas Paine (1737-1809), American political pamphleteer and activist, born in England and universally known for his works such as Common Sense (1776), Crisis (1776-1783), The Rights of Man (1791-92) and The Age of Reason (1794-96), these are very trying times that try the souls of Nigerians. Like His Excellency the President, Thomas Paine was a humanist, reformer and revolutionary. Paine acknowledged the daunting challenges in the America of his time but he believed that they were not insurmountable. I see His Excellency, President Tinubu, rightly or wrongly, in his mold. And I am fully aware of what President Tinubu requires of me and my colleagues who are Honourable Commissioners. This is one appointment that I am taking even more seriously than when I became a permanent secretary. I am also fully apprised of what Nigerians are yearning for. It is most certainly not the presentation of another beautiful strategy or blueprint for public service institutional reform. We have so many of those already.

And on this I wholeheartedly give significant credit to the efforts of Heads of Service of the Federation from 1999 to date. Rather, I know Mr. President expect me and this newly constituted Federal Civil Service Commission of genuinely professional technocrats to move from visioneering, ideation, strategy and implementation planning to getting things done by helping to deliver on the president’s governance promises. Mr. President expects us to adequately lead the systemic and institutional change to deliver concrete results and outcomes that create palpable impact that translates into better and qualitative life through poverty reduction, job creation, significant investments, and improved and accessible service delivery.

All of this, I fervently believe, can only happen if we enter into strategic unfettered partnerships with critical players like the Head of the Civil Service of the Federation et al with which we share borderless responsibility as far as civil service reform is concerned to do the right things (by coming up with appropriate solutions to institutional problems, especially to public policy implementation) and do the right things right (by getting the right results and outcomes through correct change management and work-culture changes and re-professionalization that successfully breeds a new generation of public managers in the long-term). I am strongly convinced that restoring confidence in the capacity of the public service to transform the lives of Nigerians is not through merely changing the narratives about the indisputable but unfortunate facts of poorly developed and badly managed infrastructure. Rather, what is needed urgently is a fresh start from HR accounting. This is how I see it, Mr. President: If the public service is the single largest employer, and given the present unsustainable cost of governance, then Nigerians have the right to demand from us that the public service account for tangible returns on the huge investments on it before it can justifiably demand for enhanced conditions of service. And, on the other hand, such a public service also needs to take note of an HR recruitment policy that allows it to recruit 1000 mediocre personnel/workforce to do jobs that only 200 expert-professionals will do far better.

As the hub of the civil service HR professionalism, the secretariat of the Commission can no more be run by generalists. Not being professionally trained and certified HR practitioners, they do not possess sufficient knowledge and expertise that could enable them draw on fundamental HR concepts and models in the fields of HRM and public administration to bring professionalism to bear on their job. At the level of the big picture, the public service in its Weberian ‘I am directed’ mode, is too legalistic in ways that make it unresponsive to public demands and accountability, and too heavy on compliance assumptions rather than performance and productivity.

Afterall, Weber referred to a rational system of administration that was based on impartial and consistent application of rules in the service of the public, not an inbred system of self-serving, malicious compliance. Unfortunately, the service thinks this will change through training and capacity development. But the training investments result in ‘trained incapacity’ instead. Besides, such trainings are seen as isolated processes without linkages to HR planning, employee appraisal, pay and rewards system. Indeed, in spite of decades of lamentation regarding the heavily subjective Annual Staff Performance Evaluation Report (APER), all attempts to transition into a performance-oriented system remain at best rhetorical ones.

The most devastating dimension of the civil service HR system’s crisis was the collapse of the pay and remuneration system with adversarial industrial and labour relations looming large in its wake, and justifiably so. As the causative factors were the making of policy makers and politicians over the years, and not the fault of the innocent civil servants’ victims, who put in their best daily but do not know why they are ceaselessly derided nonetheless.

Indeed, after independence, the public service pay-levels were relatively reasonable. In the oil boom era of the early ‘70s, and the implementation of the Udoji bonanza in 1974 in a manner that discounted the weightier managerial changes to support such wage levels, the wage levels in the public sector got disconnected from the productivity trajectory in the national economy. As the economy depreciated, revenue faltered, but staffing numbers continued to rise, driven by the ever-expanding role of a welfare state and the Federal character policy. Pay-levels thus became stagnant, with low wages eventually becoming irredeemably the norm.

By the mid-80s, retiring officers had started to cope with a pension scheme that was formidably less than purchasing power, while serving officers earned subsistence wages. This collapse of the pay-system inexorably destroyed the employment contract between the government and the public employees. Informality, combined with indiscipline, moonlighting, etc. set in and performance plummeted, the results of a distorted workforce structure wherein too many do nothing, too many do too little, and too few do too much. Systemic dysfunction resulted, with professionals with scarce skills leaving to find fulfilment in other sectors of the economy and with many relocating overseas. Training budgets gradually evaporated and episodic corruption that had been a coping mechanism became a systemwide normal.

All in all, public interest, merit principles and competency-based HRM got emasculated, with the gatekeeping responsibility of the FCSC wantonly weakened and politicized especially through nepotism, with appointments into the career public service seen as largesse for patronage and rent-seeking in a dynamic that throws merit to the dogs.

Institutional reform has to begin, therefore, from the general dysfunction of the public service system, the public perception of its bureaucratic culture, and the false equation of civil service reforms with retrenchment. At the core of this reform process is the restoration of the fundamental elements that make the public service a noble vocation: a value-based institution, management system and a profession – a calling to serve the Nigerian public within the best traditions of public service professionalism and political neutrality that manages the interface between politics and administration in the service of the social contract. This envisaged reform shall restore the prestige and image of the service and protect the tenure of civil servants even within the framework of flexible employment contracts and performance auditing.

This general reform objective shall translate into several fundamental ones:

Restoring public service values and ethical standards within a framework of deep-rooted culture change, that includes restoring the confidence of the civil service to speak truth to power in terms of policy formulation and implementation dynamics;
Instituting a performance management culture to displace the extant ‘I am directed’ command, control and compliance orientation that lacks templates to account for outputs, outcomes and impact within the framework of results-based management;
Re-professionalization through reskilling and retooling;
Instituting a competitive wage structure that could attract and retain talents and scarce skills wherever they are found.

This is the fundamental framework of institutional reform that focuses the collective effort to transform the FCSC into a hub for reforming the public service system in Nigeria. In the overall institutional scheme of things, the FCSC as it is now functions in a gatekeeping capacity as the human resource management linchpin of the entire public service in terms of staff recruitment, training, promotion and discipline. Unfortunately, and as part of the general dysfunction – indeed being one of the cogent sources of it – the FCSC has gained the bad reputation of being a cash-and-carry organization that is rotten at its very core. And this is despite the immense and overwhelming efforts of other past reform-minded chairmen and commissioners, especially the spirited efforts of our highly-regarded Dr. Tukur Bello Ingawa, the out-going Chairman. Even more unfortunate still, an institution that ought to operate as the pragmatic hub of human resource management and of professionalism and expertise has seemingly fallen behind global modernizing trends because it is operating largely with the “clerk of works” template; a generalist understanding struggling to make sense of the tough demands of human resources in the age of administrative and technical specialization and professionalism.

The FCSC must be upheld to the reform imperative of rebranding that rescues its core objectives and critical positioning in terms of the optimal performance of the public service to achieve sustained productivity. This rebranding requires – as the first key performance indicator to President Tinubu and Nigerians – an urgent and spirited effort to houseclean in ways that focus attention on reinstituting a new identity and brand for the FCSC as a reengineered, professionalized, technology-enabled, results-oriented and accountable face of civil service integrity and public-spiritedness. The second urgent task is the need to rejig the operational model by which the FCSC has worked in terms of being managed by a secretariat of generalists.

This is contrary to the global image of service commissions as hubs of strategic human resource management and professionalism. The point therefore is to enlist or recruit a core of carefully selected, certified and reform-minded professional HR experts who will take over the FCSC secretariat top leadership and determine its operational dynamics.

This brings us to the core objectives of the FCSC. The three objectives are recruitment, promotion and discipline. The goal of reforming the recruitment modality is to use it as the baseline for transforming the IQ of the public service in creative ways to address the competence and skill deficits. This means that the reform must restore the reputation of the public service as the preferred employer in attracting and managing talents and skills, and the capacity to retain them. Part of the reform element demands the introduction of technology-based testing and assessment that leaves no room for nepotism and mediocrity. With regard to promotion, the imperative is the shift away from traditional Weberian “I-am-directed” and the trained incapacity or blind conformity that undermines performance and productivity.

What is needed is a performance and entrepreneurial model that is citizens-centered, results-oriented, technology-enabled, flexible, transparent and accountable. This new model, for instance, will automatically displace the highly subjective APER as an instrument for staff appraisal, and replace it with online continuous assessment that embed training-based assessments, peer reviews and 360 degrees feedback models in citizens’ surveys configurations and other productivity-related metrics. Lastly, the disciplinary remit requires remodeling the public service workforce within a framework that Douglas McGregor calls Theory Y as opposed to Theory X. According to him, Theory X represents a transactional model of managerial leadership that simply administers the day-to-day affairs of the public service. On the other hand, Theory Y opposes this mere administrative capacity by demanding of the public manager a transformative capacity that creatively harnesses the competences of the workforce and direct their talents and capacities towards organizational objectives. This requires that we focus stringently on culture change and operationalize a new culture of work that map behaviour and performance.

To achieve all this requires that the management of the FCSC work within a collaborative framework that brings in critical stakeholders into the joint effort to transform the FCSC: policy makers via the Federal Executive Council, the National Assembly, the Head of the Civil Service of the Federation, the body of permanent secretaries, the Council of Retired Heads of Service, public service ombudsmen, Federal Permanent Secretaries (CORFEPS) and its States’ equivalents, revamped National Association for Public Administration and Management (NAPAM), the private sector, non-state actors, the academia, the media and international development partners.

This stakeholder consultative process will be directed towards the goal of generating a readily implementable Civil Service Renewed Hope Agenda and Action Plan that reinforce, strengthen and consolidate existing programmes, and which will be presented to the Federal Executive Council for approval in the months ahead. Once approved these will be implemented outside of personalized approaches in a collegial stakeholders-driven dynamic. There is also the need to collaborate with the Presidential Delivery Unit to restructure and capacitate the bureaucratic backend to enable the shift into a competency-rooted, performance-driven, accountable and technology-enabled national public administration model for Nigeria. The first order of business here will be to harness the technical support of a consortium of expert firms and individuals to make up for MDAs’ capability and capacity gaps to keep the FGN at peak performance in the implementation of its Renewed Hope Agenda in the immediate term.

This will automatically commit us, as I have argued before, to the task of revitalizing the National Association for Public Administration and Management (NAPAM) as the national and professional association and community of practice that connects administrative scholars and researchers, development practitioners, and other regional and global communities of practice and service to the envisioned Nigeria’s developmental state brand.

At the risk of overstating why past reforms have had limited success, it is important to say that the Nigerian civil service does not belong to only Federal officers. There are other services and practices that must own any administrative reform programme in the civil service in the country for it to achieve desired impact. There are public administration scholars and researchers, there is a huge constituency of development practitioners, there are civil society organisations, the media and external development players, who must be brought into the reform conversation for it to make sense. And these others will create the narratives eventually, when we are succeeding, and they will tell the story by deploying the credibility they have in bigger measure only because they were in the trench with us in galvanizing the reforms and change programmes. So we cannot afford to be arrogant by calling their bluff, Nigeria belongs to us all.

This is not a grandiose dream. Institutional reform is not rocket science. It can be done the same way that Americans sent a rocket to the moon, and connected that feat to the task of further strengthening America’s leadership in the fourth industrial revolution and improving democratic governance through efficient service delivery that grounds sustainable infrastructural development. We already have the irrefutable political support of the President, and in my reform experience, that is half of the hurdles already surmounted. Where there is political will, the only other thing required to make change happen is the technocratic will and capacity to design and deliver.

That said, I have been around the block too many times to naïvely assume that any of this will be easy or straightforward. Even in the best of times and all the goodwill in the world, the path of reform is rarely straightforward, more so where disruption and dislocation are envisaged, and these are hardly the best of times. We fully expect that there will be challenges along the way. As is common to all such disruptive reform process, we anticipate that there will be sideway steps and possibly even some stepping back to recalibrate. But our direction of travel and line of sight is to undertake innovative reforms that result in real, substantive improvements in the quality of Nigeria’s civil service. Some of the innovations will be catalytic, while others will only involve tinkering at the margins for marginal gains. Some changes might require a scalpel, while gentle chiseling may be sufficient in other instances. In all instances our focus will be on meaningful change that generates measurable improvements in performance rather than grand initiatives that produce little or no results beyond their cosmetic beauty. It is better for us to achieve bite-size improvements in the focus, orientation, quality and actual performance than some ambitious legislation that is not implemented. Because our focus is on changes that are viable, impactful and sustained, we will follow an approach of building confidence among stakeholders, testing and reviewing innovations and promoting system-wide understanding and adoption before resorting to institutionalization via legislation (if required). We will model good practice and provide support to inspire reform at sub-national so that all of Nigeria’s public service improves across all tiers of government. We will embrace, encourage and systematically receive public feedback from the citizens and service users.

At this juncture, and in closing, let me say that it is unfortunate that my generation of civil servants have failed to give public administration the status of a profession. There is scant intergenerational all-stakeholders seminal dialogue on the status and the future of a profession in deep crisis. We are unable to build a community of practice and a service bonded not just with esprit de corps passion but in evident consciousness that it is a profession facing an existential challenge that requires deep professional self-introspection and seminal rethinking of its raison d’etre to enable it to regain its relevance and lost glory. The civil service is not a cult and must therefore break away from the mold of insularity and inbreeding by opening itself up for seminal interrogation. The world is indeed moving towards a seamless boundary of public-private integration with public managers and corporate chieftains moving unhindered in the dynamic of a capable developmental state. We may not be there yet, but we must be always alert to the irreducible fact that a river that does not allow others to flow through it will eventually dry up. And we owe the future generations of bureaucrats the sacred duty to do the needful as well as the rightful.

Now to end this text, I would like to suggest and state here that there shall be the need to organize and participate from time to time in workshops, seminars and conferences to be organized by the Commission in unprecedented scales with necessary support and cooperation from the political, technocratic and administrative leaderships in the quest to put on track the task of changing robustly and patriotically the civil service in earnest – without dilly-dallying and without mincing words. We must begin the journey now as we make the key move to be part of the President’s Renewed Hope Agenda.


*Prof. Tunji Olaopa
Chairman, Federal Civil Service
Commission, Abuja