I will share my thoughts on how the civil and public service in Nigeria, can continue to be relevant now and in the future. To assess where we are currently, I will delve into a brief history of the civil service, touch on experiences that we have witnessed first-hand and proffer suggestions for making the service that “critical delivery engine of government” that will “deliver high-value services to citizens and accelerate other reforms.”
A Brief History of the Public/Civil Service
The history of the public/civil service in Nigeria dates to the colonial era when the British entrenched the philosophy of good governance and transparency through its administrative structures.
Since Nigeria’s independence, various panels have studied and made recommendations for reforming the Civil Service, including the Morgan Commission of 1963, the Adebo Commission of 1971 and the Udoji Commission of 1972-74. The 1988 Civil Service Reorganisation Decree 43 had a significant impact on the structure and efficiency of the Civil Service as it abolished the Office of the Head of the Civil Service of the Federation (OHCSF). The White Paper on the report of the Ayida Panel of 1997 reinstated the Office of the Head of the Civil Service of the Federation and made far-reaching decisions to drive a more efficient Civil Service. In 1999, a new constitution was adopted and made specific provisions in Section 171 for appointing the Head of the Civil Service of the Federation.
This background is to emphasise the critical role that the Civil Service plays in the formulation, implementation, monitoring and evaluation as well as the sustenance of governance objectives and goals.
Chapter VI, Part D, Section 169 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria stipulates, under the heading “The Public Service of the Federation”, that “There shall be a civil service of the Federation,” adding in Section 170 that: “Subject to the provisions of this Constitution, the Federal Civil Service Commission may, with the approval of the President and subject to such conditions as it may deem fit, delegate any of the powers conferred upon it by this Constitution to any of its members or any officer in the civil service of the Federation.
Part IV (Section 318) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria defines the “civil service of the Federation” as “service of the Federation in a civil capacity as staff of the office of the President, the Vice-President, a ministry or department of the government of the Federation assigned with the responsibility for any business of the Government of the Federation.”
Similarly, it defines the “civil service of the state” as “service of the government of a state in a civil capacity as staff of the office of the governor, deputy governor or a ministry or department of the government of the state assigned with the responsibility for any business of the government of the state.”
As aptly noted by Haroun Ayomikun of Learn Nigeria Law, the civil service in Nigeria, like in other climes, is perpetual in nature. The civil service has some characteristics: permanence, anonymity, neutrality, impartiality, bureaucracy, technical know-how and capacity. The civil service works under specific rules, e.g. Code of Conduct. The civil service comprises permanent officials, unlike the government, which changes periodically.
While the history of public service in Nigeria is traceable to the colonial era, that of Edo State was birthed during the tenure of Chief Dennis Osadebey as Premier of the Mid-Western Region in November 1963. Over the years, successive administrations have made the civil service function more optimally.
The Role of the Public/Civil Service
Whether at the State or Federal level, public service plays a crucial role in providing public goods on the exclusive and concurrent lists. In other words, it provides a bond between the government and the people. Hence, we discuss a social contract between the state and its citizens. It follows, therefore, that a capable public service is vital for facilitating the participation of citizens in the governance of their respective states and Nigeria. With the world evolving daily, particularly with the innovations on the Internet, many more citizens are becoming more involved and demanding more from the Government. The End SARS campaign is a significant pointer to the voice of today’s Nigerian citizens.
It is against this background that service delivery by civil/public servants has attained new heights as the Federal and State governments need to respond pragmatically to the demands of a more aware citizenry. As the engine room of government, the civil service serves as the fulcrum of government operations, making it very relevant in governance. Designing and implementing policies, as the Edo State Government anticipated, would require an efficient public service manned by officers capable of predicting and proffering solutions to emerging issues.
Assessing the Public/Civil Service
The general perception among the average knowledgeable citizen is that the public/civil service at the Federal and State levels and the governments they represent are not delivering optimally on the citizens’ expectations. Many stakeholders believe there is a waste of resources across the different tiers and organs of government due to inefficiencies within the ranks. It is a truism that an efficient public service is necessary to transmit government benefits to the socially and economically weaker sections of society who have fewer alternatives to services provided by the government. Public service scholars believe that “the mere allocation of funds for programmes that do not work effectively would be a waste of public funds unless extra efforts are spent on improving government efficiency and sustainability.”
To be relevant in the present, the civil service must be professional in providing required services regarding knowledge, intellect, skill, assurance of upholding the rule of law, integrity, courage and confidence.
Lessons From the Federal Civil Service Experience
I want to share with you, briefly, my story and journey in the Federal Civil Service from when I served as the Head of the Civil Service of the Federation. Many parallels and similarities from that experience remain relevant today and offer lessons to improve the existing state of Public Service both at the Federal and State levels.
I was appointed as the Head of the Civil Service of the Federation on 16 June, 2009. In accepting the appointment, I set for myself the task of leading a service that is dedicated to achieving the government’s objectives and goals that are responsive to the needs of society at large. This required instituting a Service where integrity, professionalism and merit are entrenched.
My first impression upon my assumption of office was the noticeable challenge of human capacity and competence, which largely accounted for the ineffectiveness and inefficiencies observed across the Federal Civil Service. The dearth of knowledge and skills was further compounded by the attitude and work culture which pervaded the service at the time.
To validate my assessment and to have first-hand feedback on the state of affairs within the service, I engaged the Directorate cadre in the Federal Civil Service in an interactive session to exchange views on the challenges before the Service and how best to tackle the identified problems. The frank comments of officers focused on indiscipline in the Service, loss of morale induced by stagnation, supersession, poor working conditions, and low capacity, among others.
Similarly, to have a more expansive feel and feedback on the strategic direction in which the Service should go, a Forum of Serving and Retired Permanent Secretaries, which Chief Odigie-Oyegun graced, was held in September 2009. Highlights of the communiqué from that forum were:
That the Office of the Head of the Civil Service of the Federation (HCSF) should interface with the Federal Civil Service Commission (FCSC) to institute a competency-based Human Resource Management framework to address the problems of perceived inequity and injustice in recruitment, transfer and promotions in the Service, and
That the OHCSF should collaborate with the FCSC to institute an eight-year tenure policy for Permanent Secretaries and Directors.
Following the conclusion of these two wide consultations, a proposal was made to the government to institute a tenure policy for Permanent Secretaries and Directors in the Public Service. The policy was to reinvigorate the Service, restore the morale of officers and unlock the creative potential of committed staff. The policy, which was widely accepted by well-meaning Nigerians and civil servants that had stagnated for no fault of theirs, sought to ventilate the system, promote efficiency, and strengthen the institutionalisation of due process in career progression.
Sequel to the implementation of the tenure policy, several Permanent Secretaries retired from the Service, and there arose the need to replace them and appoint Permanent Secretaries to existing vacancies. The innovative thing about the appointment of the Permanent Secretaries was that an interactive session followed an integrity and knowledge-based examination conducted by a select panel before being recommended for the President’s approval. In addition, the selection was thrown open to all Directors from the affected states and zones. Following the appointment of the successful candidates and to give them a head start and a feeling of their schedule, a three-day induction course was also conducted for them with all existing permanent secretaries in attendance to allow for inter-collegial interaction.
As noted by the directorate cadre in the civil service, civil servants’ competency level was low due largely to the neglect of yesteryear to provide proper and adequate training for officers for effective service delivery. It was, therefore, evident that officers required massive training to keep up with the changing architecture of the 21st-century civil service.
In understanding the capacity challenges that had beset the Federal Civil Service over the years, one must reflect on how we got here. I will outline some of the fundamental issues that brought us here.
Abandonment of previous Human Capacity Development structures put in place by our Forebears,
The absence of training modules in core Public Service areas and the mismatch between training needs and training attended,
To a large extent, training became a route to addressing employee welfare needs,
The recruitment process in the Service was also a challenge.
Ageing staff population in the Service,
Slow adoption and utilisation of available technology in the Service, and
Inadequate performance management and consequence management mechanisms, among others.
This situation created a significant deficiency in staff competencies and presented a lot of skills gap, a weak knowledge base, and unethical and unprofessional conduct which were unacceptable and ultimately affected the quality of service delivery across the board.
To frontally address this disorder, a massive training programme was embarked upon to resuscitate the learning abilities of officers and ensure their adaptability to information and communication technology. With the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), now SDGs/World Bank Debt relief fund, over 19,125 officers were trained between October 2009 and October 2010. The enthusiasm to learn, as exhibited by the participants, underscored the need for training to become a priority programme for all MDAs so that civil servants can deliver, in a seamless manner, on all government programmes. To sustain this momentum, training modules were produced by the Manpower Development Office (MDO) in collaboration with all the Manpower Development Institutes (MDIs) and other stakeholders, emphasising the development of officers’ managerial abilities.
As we did then in the Federal Civil Service, I believe the service’s potential can be continually unlocked with the right policies and ongoing training, mentoring, proper career management, and a sanctions and reward system.
In essence, in this journey, it is helpful to reflect on the measures which we took to address some of the issues we were confronted with.
We brought back to life the Public Service Institute of Nigeria (PSIN) and strengthened other training institutions such as the Administrative Staff College of Nigeria (ASCON) and the Centre for Management Development (CMD). We also developed structured and statutory courses to provide competence and quality service delivery.
Established a Content Development Team – the team was set up to develop training modules in all core areas of the public service across all levels i.e. levels 8 – 17. The course contents were assessment based. We complemented with General Training modules in contemporary subjects, including ICT; Report writing/Presentation; Public Speaking; and French.
We commenced the initiative to use online as an additional learning tool. We uploaded the course content and training modules developed, so that all civil servants can access the modules at minimal cost to the service. The idea was that civil servants would have to complete specified courses prescribed for various Grade levels as appropriate as benchmark assurance of capacity and “being fit and proper” before the Head of the Civil Service could present them to the Federal Civil Service Commission for promotion examinations.
We also collaborated with relevant institutions (Tertiary and Non-Tertiary) within and outside Nigeria for knowledge broadening and exposure to state-of-the-art competencies.
In addition, exchange programmes between the private sector and the civil service were also implemented to improve understanding and exposure to the private sector’s operational practices. The idea was to enable appreciation of differences and peculiarities of objectives in both sectors for better partnership and smoother relationships in service delivery.
We also made provision for special funds to strengthen some public service institutions for capacity building, namely Administrative Staff College of Nigeria (ASCON), Centre for Management Development (CMD), and the Public Service Institute of Nigeria (PSIN).
Despite the merits of our objectives and efforts, there was significant resistance from open and unusual quarters, within and outside the Service.
Another area of concern at the time was the inconsistency of the yardstick for promotion and consequent dangerous overtaking, resulting in low morale, loss of confidence, promotion of lobbying as a way of life over competence and diligence, clogging the senior level positions with the relatively younger workforce that had prevented predictable upward movement and compensation for competence and hard work, etc.
The eight-year tenure policy, which I explained earlier, was our response to this challenge.
Looking back, I must admit that my team and I stepped on many toes and crossed many red lines to make the Federal Civil Service better compete with those from other climes.
I have taken this time to share these with you so you appreciate that what the Edo State Government is doing is not easy. The reforms might even be resisted by persons who are at ease with their current status.
The News Out There
I was enthused by a recent newspaper report that quoted the Edo State Head of Service as saying ongoing reforms in the state’s civil and public service by the Governor Godwin Obaseki administration have repositioned the state’s service as the most digitised in the country.
That report said the government has focused on leveraging technology to improve efficiency, transparency, and service delivery to the Edo people.
It said the government has enhanced productivity and transparency, reduced bureaucracy, and improved overall performance in our civil and public service through innovative reforms and investments in digital infrastructure.
Furthermore, it said the government had introduced the e-governance platform and transitioned from manual to electronic processes in its service. The report also disclosed that the administration had hired a new generation of civil servants who are being trained and equipped with the necessary skills and tools to fully embrace and utilise digital technology in their day-to-day work of delivering effective and efficient service to Edo people.
This is music in my ears and I commend all those who have contributed to the success story. Beyond these, however, you need to tell your own stories to attract the best of hands to the service of the State.
At this Juncture
Before I end this address, let me comment on the John Odigie-Oyegun Public Service Academy (JOOPSA). I am Impressed. This has turned out to be a world-class training academy which will offer exceptional opportunities to the public servants in Edo State, the region, and the nation. Clearly, this will justify the massive investment of resources deployed to this development.
JOOPSA should aim to collaborate with ASCON, PSIN and similar institutions for knowledge sharing and develop certification programs that align with global standards for the benefit of Civil Servants. May I advise that JOOPSA acquire all the necessary accreditations and regulatory permits to give legitimacy to its content.
In due course, the Academy should endeavour to either directly provide accommodation facilities or partner with the private sector for students and trainees to enhance their learning experience and create an enabling environment.
Whilst commending Governor Godwin Obaseki and his team for giving form to the vision of upskilling the machinery of the Edo State Public Service, I urge us all to work in unity in achieving the dreams of the government to make Edo State work for the greater good of the majority of citizens and residents.
I submit that the degree and dimension of the issues raised in this speech will vary from State to State; therefore, I suggest a dedicated retreat to address some of these issues and challenges.
I also wish that this Academy would serve perpetually as the institution where basic and advanced knowledge required for Human Capital Development will be nurtured, germinated, and delivered to public servants as their food and drink.
As a parting advice, I urge the leadership, political or technocrats, to remain focused, committed, courageous and clear-headed in the Business of Public Service Human Capital Development. On this journey, continuity of leadership commitment is sine qua non to sustainability and the long-term relevance of this grand edifice. Indeed, mentorship should be part of the strategy to ensure continuity. At the risk of overemphasis, mentoring of upcoming young officers should be given strong attention.
Performance management should be entrenched for staff accountability, reward and sanction. Rewarding good behaviours and sanctioning bad behaviours must be institutionalised by way of a “name and shame” policy. I also recommend a strong synergy between the Office of the Head of Service and the State Civil Service Commission for continuity of purpose.
Stephen Oronsaye is a former head of the civil service of Nigeria.
This is excerpted from the text of the keynote address at the formal opening of the John Odigie-Oyegun Public Service Academy (JOOPSA), Benin City, Edo State, on Saturday, 12 August, 2023.