10 April 2012

Nigeria: Public Service and the Udoji Reform - a Review


When Chief Obafemi Awolowo wrote glowing about the civil service in the immediate post-independence period, he may not have full information for him to know the fate that would befall the service as one of the consequences of the political chain of events set in motion by himself and other political gladiators in the first republic. The foundation of that evolving institution was laid on the Weberian administrative framework venerated by Whitehall in Britain. 'Weberian' for the non-professionals refers to the classical conception of bureaucracy by the great German sociologist, Max Weber, whose theory established the basis of universal public sector managerial tradition after the industrial revolution.

However, good things have a way of fizzling out unexpectedly. The institutional and moral foundation of the evolving civil service collapsed almost immediately the British colonialists left. The Nigerian Government was then left to pick up its pieces as best as it could. The administrative profile of the immediate post-independence period in Nigeria was therefore characterised by series of attempts to make the inherited institution truly Nigerian in content, form and operations. These attempts, in the forms of various commissions and committees, had issues like wages and incomes, structure and hierarchies, compensation and remuneration, as well as other institutional requirements. When the Newns Commission was inaugurated in 1959, the Nigerianisation Policy was already arriving at its zenith. Independence was a foregone conclusion, and the Nigerian leadership was eager to receive the baton of authority.

It was however left to the seminal intervention of Chief Simeon Adebo and the Wages and Salaries Review Commission of 1971 to define the path of change and progress for the Nigerian State and its Civil Service. The significance of that Commission's Report was that it broke the pre-1970 cycle of mechanical reduction of the problem of the service to one of compensation. The Commission's Report thus signalled, prophetically, the administrative fault lines and systemic stress fractures of the inherited Weberian service structure; issues that are well beyond the confines of wages and salaries.

By 1972 when the Udoji Commission took over the expanded template suggested by the Adebo Commission, it was confronted with a dilemma which made the difference between its success and failure. The dilemma is captured in the words of former American President, Jimmy Carter: "We must adjust to changing times and still hold to unchanging principles". The basis of that dilemma was not only the Weberian foundation on which the civil service in Nigeria was nurtured at that time, but also the militarist culture of governance that had taken over the Nigerian political landscape. Undoubtedly, the Service in what is generally described as the "good old days" was best for the time.

By 1972, the global administrative context was already under serious interrogation by different best practices. The pertinent question, therefore, is whether the systemic attributes contributed to the civil service by the Weberian bureaucratic form could have been adequate for all times, and how the recommended practice would fare under military governance. The strength of the Service of the 60s was that it was value-based, an extension of the pervasive societal moral status at the time. Secondly, in spite of the nascent symptom of ethnicity and violence marking of the polity at the time, the Service benefited from the competitive atmosphere.

What then should we do with this tradition in the face of a declining civil service? The Udoji Commission had its answer in the Fulton Reform in the UK which had announced the need for a paradigm shift by sounding the death knell of the old "I am directed" tradition, built around the "cult of generalists", to a managerial tradition. Of course, whatever is new and recent has the aura of potentiality and success. Yet, the new is not necessarily the best! The new management architecture that was envisioned would have laid a critical substructure that would set Nigeria on the new productivity paradigm that assisted Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, the Asian Tigers and many other developing countries that are within global ranking at the time. That is still a possibility we have not achieved even after Udoji.

However, that recommendations were caught in the political trap of the governance tradition instituted by the military and its "New Federalism" in 1966. This tradition aggravated the execution dysfunction already manifesting in the development process in Nigeria. This is because the rigorous dynamics governing development investment was replaced by the unreflective command and control structure which created huge process, policy, capacity, performance and resource gaps that is worth extensive exploration. To know the effect of this "commanding height" policy on the administrative structure, ask yourself: To what extent can military centralisation evolve a decentralised and enabling governance process?

The immediate effect of militarism on the administrative structure of the civil service was that the Gowon regime chose to implement the wage component of the extensive Udoji Report championing a new paradigm of public administration. This selective but myopic response to the Report not only delinked public service from productivity improvement trajectory being proposed for the economy, it also ensured that other human resources dysfunction and the Federal Character--in spite of its promises--made wage resolution intractable in the face of a total overhaul of workforce composition which public service rule and unions adversarial militancy foreclosed.

The Udoji Commission raised for us a fundamental question: To what extent must we break out of a seemingly old tradition in the pursuit of a new one in order to achieve administrative efficiency? Udoji Commission was caught between the stubborn tenacity of the Weberian framework and the alluring fascination of the New Public Management revolution which even the Dotun Phillips-inspired Decree 43 of 1988 repeated. They chose the latter, and in that were both right and wrong: they therefore suffered a conception-reality gap. The significant lesson for us in retrospect is: Reform creativity usually consists in an ingenious mix of already existing ideas and innovation deployed into a unique pattern which has been before the eyes all the time. Such ideas then needed to be supported by "landing gears and wings" to make their execution smooth and effective. In spite of the many woes of the Udoji Commission, that is one lesson it taught us. Whether we have learnt it is another issue.

Forty years after the fateful Udoji Commission was inaugurated, we are still acutely confronted with the critical issue of the implementation capability readiness of the public service. This is crucially more so given that we have in place now the present administration's willingness--via its Transformation Agenda--to translate macroeconomic and administrative policies to concrete development outcomes within a specific time frame. And the clock is ticking slowly but surely.

After the Commission's Report went the way of unfavoured reports and white papers, the civil service--from the second to the third republic--completed its dysfunctional cycle. First, the values that came with the Weberian tradition were completely lost. Following this, the wage structure that was attached to the Commission's terms of reference remained unresolved. The combination of this with the problem of poor staffing and poor performance management led to a critical undermining of government's status as the employer of choice.

For instance, I consider the Federal Character principle one of the effective nation-building strategies invented for managing the combustible diversity in Nigeria. However, this principle has badly eroded the declining professional and competency capacity of the public service. This, it should be obvious, is a strong function of a corresponding deterioration in the nation's educational framework which awards certificate without content or character. The Nigerian universities churn out, on a continuous basis, graduates without the right skill to fill in the capacity gap in the service. And so, the gap widens and widens as the inevitable consequence of the devaluation of merit and professionalism.

The nation, unfortunately, could also no longer benefit from a 'town and gown' networking that harnesses and deploys the full weight of the available academic capital and capacities to the task of national development. This was the kind of synergy that brought the likes of Pius Okigbo, Aboyade, Onosode, Mabogunje, Claude Ake, Kalu I. Kalu, Omolayole, Kolade, Elaigwu, Jibril Aminu and other academic and industry heavyweights to a national brainstorming in search of solutions that would make the national project a profitable one for all.

Dr Olaopa, a permanent secretary in the Presidency, wrote from Abuja.

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