Civil Service Commission as catalyst in repositioning Nigerian public service

Tunji Olaopa

Let me begin this piece with some form of syllogistic administrative argument. It has become axiomatic in the diagnosis of Nigeria’s post-independence predicament to point at the leadership lacuna in governance and policymaking. The need for a visionary and strategic leadership that will drive the whole development process cannot be overemphasised. In the whole of Nigeria, the example of Lagos State stands out firmly as the most exemplary in terms of the leadership succession that has impacted the culture of good governance. From Asiwaju Bola Tinubu to Babatunde Fashola. And from Akinwunmi Ambode to the incumbent Babajide Sanwo-Olu, Lagosian have been blessed with a leadership trajectory that has kept building good policies on good policies in a continuity loop that has kept Lagos State on top of the democratic governance game, and has made the state the best example of good governance so far.

However, leadership needs a strong institutional and structural basis around which its vision could become concretised. It is around these structures and institutions that the weight of governance and service delivery is laid. This is where we arrive at the crucial point that leadership is bare without an accompanying complement of structural and institutional frameworks around which the vision and strategy of leadership can be articulated in concrete terms. With this point, we critically undermine the agency-structure argument in the social sciences. We also undermine the strong man/strong institution dichotomy. This is because there is no point to that dichotomy. One is incomplete without the other. The further point of the institutional argument is that the public service is the institution par excellence that carries the weight of democratic performance and productivity. Indeed, public service is the necessary complement to a democratic government. In the literature on developmental states, there is a strong axiomatic consensus that we cannot even begin to think of such a state outside of the administrative coherence provided by the structural framework of the public service and its capability readiness to deliver on intelligent policymaking made possible by the state and its functionaries and politicians.

And the strength of the public service must derive from a measure of public-spiritedness and professionalism of the public servants that the state has recruited and had committed to working with. Public service is a vocation that is more of a calling than a mere profession. A proper understanding of the spirituality involved in the public service is derived from likening it to the Levitical Order of the Jewish priesthood. A public servant is called to a deep and spiritual service of the public to which she is expected to dedicate all her capabilities and focus to the exclusion of every contrary emotions and desires that might undermine that commitment.

As an administrative virtue, public-spiritedness places the responsibility of the professional within the context of a personal and public accountability that motivates the professional to personally hold him/herself responsible for the discharge of his/her duties to the public. It is this public spirit or civil virtue that instigates the public servants to an efficient, effective and equitable management of the civil service system.

And of course, the quality of any public service at all, cannot be divorced from the professionalism and resilience of the Civil Service Commission. Given the spiritual significance of the professionalism and public-spiritedness of the public service, it becomes dangerous to leave the gateway into the profession unmanned. The danger of an over-bloated workforce is not only the lowering of the performance and productivity profile but much more the compromising of the professional remit of the public servants. The experience of Nigeria is telling. With independence, there was a dilemma with regard to the basis of recruitment into the public service. Representativeness was chosen over meritocracy due to Nigeria’s delicate multi-ethnic status. By the Second Republic, the public service was already so over-bloated as to be unable to achieve the capacity readiness to carry the weight of Nigeria’s development planning. In 1975, the hammer of brutal downsizing fell on the public service, and it crushed the system not just to size but with the professional confidence and esprit de corps which made it tick also lost.

Thus, the locus of the modernising imperative and professionalism of the public service has remained the CSC. This is crucial because the CSC is the interface that mediates between the government and the public service system itself in ways that facilitate a synergy of performance and productivity the state can work with for democratic governance that positively affects citizens. In this sense, the CSC needs to keep reforming its gatekeeping dynamics to be able to also properly gatekeep the professional requirement for repositioning the public service as a profession. In1954, the Nigerian Public Service Commission was established, and the 1979 Constitution enshrined and changed the name as the Federal Civil Service Commission.

Every CSC is confronted with the necessity of modernizing its structural, institutional, procedural and ethical frameworks. Reforming the civil service itself entails the reform of the CSC and its managerial dynamics and regulations. This derives from strategising its own performance management system in ways that allows it to perform better at its gatekeeping responsibility. This is one of the imperatives of the managerial revolution that requires not only a technology-based public service, but also an efficient and effective workforce that is able to achieve a performance trajectory that services good governance. To grasp the importance of professionalism that undergirds the gatekeeping responsibility of the CSC, there is a need to situate that professionalism within the larger context of workforce dynamics and HR function in the twenty-first century.

Such a reform at a general level entails the following critical issues. First, there is policy advice and analysis. New technologies demand that the CSC must be on the lookout for global best practices on the relationship between these technologies and policy analysis and intelligence, and their relationship in informing policy research. The second issue is service delivery and citizen engagement. The CSC needs to monitor what new skills and competence are demanded in transiting the civil service into the period of open government that leads to the co-creating of better services and engagements with citizens as customers. The third issue has to do with commissioning and contracting. The CSC must also be on top of the contracting of non-core functions of the public service, and the commissioning of third parties who have the requisite competences that complement the core functions and efficiency of the public services. The fourth issue concerns managing networks. The CSC must be aware of the urgent collaborative need that brings the public service into communication and strategic relationships with governmental and nongovernmental organisations in ways that generate trust and commitment that leads to efficiency. It is therefore the responsibility of the CSC to regulate skills that lead to mutual understanding.

The fifth critical issue is workforce and HR. The advancement in artificial intelligence and robotics speaks to the necessity of reconstructing our understanding of what work entails. Most fundamentally, the fourth industrial revolution makes it imperative that work be attended by the urgency of changing skills and competences that have to keep pace with the changing dynamics of work itself and the administrative context within which work must take place.

The FCSC, finally, must also not foreclose the possibility of staff exchange with industries and even the diaspora. This also involves the possibility of staff sabbatical leave that allows staff to strengthen their professional horizons through sharing and learning from other professional spaces. A proper recruitment framework must enable the effective involvement of the MDA line and personnel managers so as to be able to achieve a fit between skill and competency gaps and recruitment into the public service. This is one irreducible imperative of the Decree No. 43 of 1988 which failed in its professionalisation remit, but provided a significant understanding of a decentralised understanding of HR function for efficiency. Within the Nigerian public service system, these skills are mostly missing in the constitution of the senior executive service. This means that the office of the head of service would be required to revise the skills domains required to constitute the SES, while also collaborating with management development institutes and government training/tertiary institutions to mount courses and design curricula that speaks to these skill sets. In all of this, CSCs will never be able to make significant impact unless the chairmen and commissioners are professionals and knowledge workers who could deploy the strategic advantage of the multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary to harness the strength of a professionalised high end specialists’ strategic HR expertise of service commissions’ secretariat to change-manage the public service into a capability-enabled track, towards desired world-class status