Reflection on Nigerian Civil Service as the “Best in the World” debate, by Prof. Tunji Olaopa

On 22nd June, 2024, at a sporting event organized for civil servants as part of activities to mark the 2024 Civil Service Week, the Head of the Civil Service of the Federation (HCSF), Dr. Folasade Yemi-Esan, made a fundamental claim about the status of the Nigerian Civil Service. At that event, the HCSF commended the hardworking and intelligent civil and public servants, and noted that Nigeria has the best civil service in the world. That was a most fundamental statement coming from such a significant personality in the civil service hierarchy. That statement has sufficient weight and implications as to defy the gravity of silence. And it was only just to be expected that this would not just be brought to my notice, but that I would be asked by many, including a few revered global scholars that I cannot ignore, to make a statement about it. The HCSF and I occupy positions that are key in the chain of structural and institutional integrity of the civil service system in Nigeria. We are both aware of the internal working and potentials of the civil service system. But more than this, we both are sensitive to the public service value of esprit de corps, that unwritten rule about our collective responsibility and loyalty to the institutional well-being of this great institution that is responsible for transforming the lives of Nigerians as the engine room and brain box of government.

But there is no doubt that such a statement would generate some forms of reactions from Nigerians. There would be some that would simply wave it aside as a mere statement that does not deserve a response. But, as Simon Kolawole has exemplified, there are those who take the statement with deep umbrage given that it does not represent their felt perception of the efficiency level and the image that the civil service has earned for itself within the context of Nigeria’s democratic governance. But I will go beyond these two kinds of reaction to the statement of the HCSF to articulate a more nuanced understanding of how the statement should be interrogated but without the benefits of a rebuttal or a critique, the reason that this essay is deliberately made somewhat academic. Like the HCSF, I am an insider who have a sense of the struggles and laudable visions of the HCSF and could spin her sense of the heights the civil service system needs to attain.

So, I think I understand where the HCSF is coming from when she made the statement. My first instinct on reading the submission of the HCSF is to imagine that a similar statement had been made in a conference of public administration experts, scholars and professionals. One methodological approach of a response to this statement—suggested by my research and comparative inclinations—would be to situate the HCSF’s confidence within the historical trajectory of the civil service in Nigeria. There are two significant administrative moments in the evolution of the civil service history in Nigeria that foretell its immense possibilities. The first is the immense administrative achievements of the old western region civil service, one regional administrative success story that I had studied and publish on. Within the context of the Awolowo-Adebo governance collaborative paradigm therefore, the civil service in Nigeria in the ‘60s became renown as one of the best in the Commonwealth community of practice. The second was the critical and outstanding performance of the General Yakubu Gowon’s super-permanent secretaries before, during and after the Nigerian civil war. But then, despite having the credentials to lay claims to being one of the best civil service systems at those moments, such a statement was never made. The nuance in the story is to know why. To say a civil service system is the best in the world demands that certain administrative minimum and maximum be already in place. Indeed, such a statement would have already found the country backstopped by civil service system on top of many human development indices and ISO certification to boot.

Even though the grammatical form of what the HCSF said does not support my next claim, one could think that the statement was actually meant to be taken in aspirational terms. In other words, given the dedication, intelligence, patriotism and credentials of the crop of civil and public servants Nigeria is blessed with (who are unarguably a minority), as well as the quantum of reform efforts that had been sowed, the civil service has the real potential to become one of the best administrative systems in the world. It would be unfair to the HCSF to imagine that those who are grinding within the civil service system do not have a sense of how crippling the dysfunction of the system is. And yet, they keep toiling to keep afloat a system that was once one of the best and that keep standing staunchly as the engine room for making Nigeria’s democratic governance work. And I can make a parallel claim that Nigerian civil servants are among the best I have met anywhere in the world, as I had observed for decades how they keep toiling in an impossible administrative system, and finding it hard to understand why they are being derided by everyone in spite of their best effort. But who has the responsibility to fix that system but the civil service profession itself?

Taking the HCSF’s statement as an aspirational one implies grounding it within a context of to-do policy initiatives that take institutional reforms seriously (what I am sure the HCSF is aware of but is not at liberty to disclose at the occasion). In other words, what would such a civil service system like Nigeria’s do to live out the dream of being the best in the world? This question is highlighted by the governance performance of the Asian Tigers, a performance that is founded on their developmental value orientation and capable state model. A significant form of aspirational policy design is already captured in the 2007 National Strategy on Public Service Reform (NSPSR) that has the vision of facilitating the emergence of “A world-class public service delivering government policies and programmes with professionalism, excellence and passion.” One must concede that the series of reform efforts of consecutive Nigerian governments from 1999 to date have been geared towards the fulfilment of this institutional aspiration.

The crucial issue is to decisively deal with the bureaucratic culture that is already consolidating the failure of the civil service system to become efficient. Bureaucracies across the world, by their very nature, are complex and multi-layered organizations designed to backstop the processes of democratic governance through the values of impartiality, uniformity, neutrality, fairness through the enforcement of governance codes in the interest of the public good. However, these bureaucracies that are supposed to complement democracy have become hindered by three structural matters. The first is that they have become so dedicated to their internal processes and mechanism that they have become closed systems—self-protecting and anti-intellectual. They are therefore incapable of taking full advantage of the seminal culture of cross-fertilization of ideas that enables the flow of ideas from the local and global (glo(cal) knowledge and information networks, and hence too rigid to be significantly innovative. The heavy reliance on administrative precedence and models that worked very well in the past implies that the civil service system becomes backward-looking and resistance to reform and change. And this automatically puts the civil service in a significant conflict with the private sector since it now begins to prioritize rules, regulations and procedures over and above efficiency, effectiveness, performance and productivity.

The second structural matter that hinders the Nigerian civil service system is the fact that it operates within the constraints created by Nigeria’s political culture that politicizes everything. The fundamental problem therefore becomes that rather than aiding the successes of institutional reforms for high-performance of the system, the reformer has to keep overcompensating for distortionary politics. The third structural issue has to do with the ways past reforms of the system have been carried out. The passion the reforms generated have not been founded on adequate knowledge, and so this keeps occasioning a huge gap between the conception of the reform initiatives and the reality of dysfunction. For instance, there has always been a heavy reliance on external expertise in ways that is devoid of internal validation and buy-in.

The goal of the institutional reform of the Nigerian civil service system is to create a strong, capable, value-based, efficient, flexible, technology-enabled, performance-focused, transparent, intelligent, professional(ized), entrepreneurial and accountable system. Indeed, any contender for the space of the best civil service systems in the world must demonstrate verifiable evidences that play out in terms of policy intelligence, administrative efficiency, service delivery standards, and the productivity paradigm it facilitates. There are several reform initiatives that have the possibilities of concretizing the fundamental significance of the Nigerian civil service as the backbone of an emerging developmental state in Nigeria.

One of the most critical issues to address in terms of reforming the civil service system in Nigeria stems from articulating its autonomy in ways that enhances its status as a vocation. And this can be done when the entry requirement into the profession is adequately monitored, capacitated and incentivized in ways that allow the civil service in Nigeria draws the best graduates the Nigerian tertiary education system can offer. Unfortunately due to adversarial unionism that renders the system over-bloated as the non-performers can hardly be exited, we still operate a personnel policy that supports the recruitment of 1000 mediocre to do work that can be better performed by 150 expert professionals that are adequately remunerated. The idea of public-spiritedness and professionalism, for example, would need to be stretched into a mechanism for professional progression and career pipelining that measures outstanding performances among staff, spiritual values (like integrity), knowledge, expertise and competences in assignments. This must then be complemented by regular cataloguing of benchmarked skills and competences matched with talent management protocols at every career professional level to pipeline officers for higher responsibilities.

Such professional gatekeeping must eventually devolve into a concern with workplace culture and public service values that must be cultivated to enable the rebranding of the civil service system. The administrative leadership, in this sense, will need to provide the means by which a critical mass of new public managers emerge—through the gatekeeping of the entry level requirements—as the clear exemplars of what the civil service stands for. We also must not fail to add the urgency of a vibrant action research and analytic policy analysis—through the core competences approach—that must be deployed across all the MDAs as the modality for extrapolating detailed information and statistics that backstop policy design, evaluation and problem-solving mechanisms on a case study basis.

Lastly, the civil service must instigate a fundamental level institutional openness to knowledge and innovation as well as peer review that enables continuous learning culture within which the system can validate its efficiency through corporate governance codes domesticated from global best practices and principles. Such an openness will facilitate a strong mechanism of intra- and inter-institutional professional relationship and partnerships in the form of the public-private partnership (PPP), global and local partnerships, policy and research nexus, inter-agency and inter-governmental collaborations, and so on.

The point therefore is that when the HCSF made the statement that the Nigerian civil service system is the best in the world, it was a critical statement that loads the dice in favour of the intelligent, smart, committed and patriotic Nigerian civil servants who are in the minority, but who have the capacity to make the system the best Nigeria needs to become capable in terms of democratic governance.

Prof. Tunji Olaopa is a Professor of Public Administration and Chairman, Federal Civil Service Commission,
Abuja

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