Mrs. Nnenna Akajemeli is the National Coordinator and Chief Executive Officer of SERVICOM Office, in the Presidency. In this interview, she speaks on how Nigerians can get the best out of the system, the successes, failures, regrets of SERVICOM and what to expect as the next level government begins.
What’s the whole essence of SERVICOM?
SERVICOM Office is the service delivery office of Nigeria. It was formally established in March 2004 after former President, Olusegun Obasanjo had a three-day retreat on service delivery, following a report on service delivery status in Nigeria. The study was carried out in 2003 in partnership with British government. So, we had a joint committee of the British government and the Nigerian government. The study took them around key ministries, departments and agencies with high customer facing service windows, and it was found out that the services were not serving the people. So, with that report formally submitted, the then president called for a three-day retreat in 2003 and thereafter, the federal executive council led by Mr. President, entered into a compact and that was how SERVICOM was born.
Ever since, we entered into the compact pledging to serve the people, in a fair, honest and transparent and efficient manner. Thereafter, the SERVICOM office was established to drive and implement the wordings of this compact. We can refer to that compact as the first service pledge, it came from the highest policy making body, the highest body of the federation. So in implementing that compact, we also have the support of the British government that funded the initiative, in partnership with Nigeria, it was a collaboration between Nigeria and British government and it lasted till 2009. It was a four-year thing, renewed for another four years with one year extension until it ended in 2009.
Thereafter, there was the end of programme review by the British government consultants who branded it as the best performing programme of the British government. We scored one and by their rating, we scored the best development programme that they have ever had in Nigeria.
SERVICOM is a national brand and it is an acceptable brand. Everybody welcomed it with open arms both the service providers and the service takers. SERVICOM was established to help implement the wordings of this compact and until now that is what we have been doing. And to do this, the initial steps taken by the office was to work on the side of the service providers, that is the ministries, departments and agencies, where we had to get the federal executive council and the president to give directives that the MDAs should write their service charter. Service charter by the way is a tool at the center of service delivery, it has provisions that spell out measurable standards, how service would be delivered. Simply put, the mandate of every MDA key services is broken down into measurable standards to guide the provider as well as the service taker. So, it is an engagement tool between the service provider and the service taker. So the provider knows exactly what to provide and the service takers know exactly what to get when they come for service.
And so for us, we work to facilitate these engagements and where promises as contained in the service charter are not met, we describe those as service failure because they are not keeping to their promises.
There are a lot of services that as far as Nigerians are concerned have failed like security, education, health etc. So how are you working to change this narrative among the service providers and receivers?
From the inception of SERVICOM’s existence, we have been working strategically to engage both sides. We started with preparing the service providers to know that the real reason they are there in the first place is to serve the people. On the part of the service takers, we have been telling them to engage because of the overwhelming apathy in the system because people don’t trust what government can do. That was one of the key findings from the study that was carried out before SERVICOM was established. Let me also say that there is no magic wand that SERVICOM can wave and everything turns around. Our engagement with the providers is strategic as well as the service taker. Initially we carried out a pilot programme to showcase how services can improve and to showcase that indeed services can truly serve the people. And so we started with the hospitals. We had federal medical center, Keffi, that was used as the pilot and in that pilot, a base study was done and we also worked through and strategically engaged with the service providers in the hospitals to begin to right the wrongs and register improvement.
For instance, before SERVICOM came into being, we never really had an organized appointment system for attending to patients in the hospital, that was established by SERVICOM. We also did not have a triage process of sorting patients to know those who are really on emergency, those who should be attended to first. And so we needed to introduce the triage process to sort out those patients who can be attended to first and those who can be attended to last. So when that pilot was launched in Keffi and it was successful, it was introduced to other tertiary health institutions. It was done by the then minister of health with all the CMDs. To date, we have a ‘do it yourself toolkits,’ prepared and ready for all hospitals. This can be checked to confirm. So this had to be done because hospital is one of the key services and the fact that health is wealth, if you don’t have healthy citizens how do you begin to run a nation?
We also had a pilot with the police in the Federal Capital Territory. That pilot was meant to protect those who bring information to the police. We cannot describe that pilot as 100 percent successful but we had a bit of success and there were some lessons taken from that, that was also sent to the police.
One of the key things we do is to also strategically engage service providers and takers. We have what we call SERVICOM desk officers in all the MDAs. They are our foot soldiers engaging and connecting services to the people. When those units were established, we went out to tell the service takers that we have desks that can actually address key concerns of service engagement with the people. Our publicising the desks worked and it is still working, people now know who to talk to, where to go when they have issues and even when they have commendations for those who have served them well. We also made public the coordinators or officers who were to man these offices. So people could now place a face to an office on who they can engage. We got feedback that there were connections between the people and the government through this strategic engagements. We also went ahead to train all of these people, preparing them for their roles. Of course we have a SERVICOM institute and from inception to date, we have been training crop of civil servants, public servants on all aspect of service delivery, preparing them to sustain the improvements they would have recorded in the various ministries, departments and agencies.
How effective have these interventions been in terms of discipline meted out to officers found wanting?
Talking of punitive measures, every service provider has their rules and regulations guiding the services. For example, for the medical practice, there are rules guiding it and you have a body overseeing that and they have provisions for every error or misgiving around that process. So what SERVICOM does it to engage with them and ensure that they implement and call up those provisions and punish where necessary. We engage to ensure that the providers do exactly what is expected of them. For us, we raise and praise those who do well and for those who do not do well, we also name and shame and that is how we have been operating from time. After every evaluation, we engage the top managers of the service windows and discuss our findings. We also have the mystery-shopping tool that we also use. For instance, if we have a report of a particular service window where services are failing, we have that authority given to us by FEC to go under cover, we go there and evaluate and then engage with them to correct. We are on the side of ensuring improvement, we engage to have failures corrected.
To date, we are working on our rules, we don’t have a legal status yet but we worked with the sixth National Assembly and got to the point of passage just before they left, that one didn’t happen. We have followed it up with the seventh and the eight National Assembly but that has not also been passed. But with this ninth Assembly, from the experiences we have gathered, we are very hopeful. We are starting as soon as they come in, the process has been on, we have done the background work and we are hoping that the legal status will be given with this coming ninth Assembly so that we can have all of these firmed up.
What are your frustrations in implementing SERVICOM?
Let me start by saying that what will make the difference and what has worked for other nations is when we imbibe in totality the idea of putting the service charter idea at the centre of implementation of the standards in the service charter. It would make for effective engagement on both sides, it will also hold people much more accountable in addition to going to the public and raising awareness around it. That has not quite happened. In other nations, people know exactly the quality of services to receive and they have imbibed the concept of the service charter and standardized services, that has not quite happened here. Performance is actually measured based on those standards and so you can hold people more accountable, you can trust that people can perform. That has not quite taken root in our MDAs and I tell you that is the greatest failing.
I’m curious to know why you decided to partner with human rights radio, are you admitting that the civil service has failed the people?
Before I was appointed, we had made a lot of efforts and we had also made progress but as we made those progress, some of the milestones we gained relapsed if you like to put it that way. And so people went back and the grounds that SERVICOM had gained for instance in the hospital, schools etc shortly after, we had reports of people not living up to those standards where SERVICOM had worked them up to. And so we needed to hold people more accountable, we needed to make people also let out a lot of information. It is in trying to handle some of these challenges that we also thought of raising the bar around awareness. And so, a lot of programmes and things that civil servants did right were also not being brought to the fore. So we came up with the idea of working with Human Rights Radio and raise the bar on people understanding of what SERVICOM is all about and the achievements of MDAs and also engage the two sides of service delivery equation, to begin to have conversations, subject them to public opinion and begin to record milestones and achievements. For instance, issues that would ordinarily have been covered up, a lot of questions are asked and the people are able to answer and then evidence to convince the people, you will also bring evidence and also, information.
Do you think you can successfully change the perception of Nigerians against civil servants?
It is not something SERVICOM can do alone. I just mentioned that we are working to bring in Mr. President, the governors, the political will to take ownership, strategic engagement and more participation of the people will make civil servants more accountable. We all have to work together to add value to our nation because it is about our people, our nation and making this nation work for us.
What has been your down moment in driving service delivery?
You know sometimes in doing our work, some will get it very quickly others will not. So down moments is when you have made efforts and you expect it to yield results but it has not. For instance pushing for an improved budget. You have done all you can, efforts made and then you come back and there is nothing to show for it, it can be very depressing. When you now have people reporting that with that little effort you have made there has been positive results, that sustains us and we use that to encourage ourselves to go on. And when we also see visible improvement in the hospitals, we are happy. For instance, when we go to the hospital and see visible improvements having gone round to make interventions when there seems to be chaos and you see the immediate results, people are excited, that keeps us going as well.
How do you relax in the midst of this drive to deliver effective services to the people?
I am a service person, outside of my work I have a lot of engagement with my church, I also serve in the church. For instance I serve in the harvest committee, women forum and I have three associations in church where I render services. I like to see people around me happy so I reach out to everybody around me as much as I can. Having people around me relaxes me the most. Why? Because of fulfillment of purpose for life. That in itself drives even the work I do at SERVICOM. We are created to serve humanity to the glory of God and humanity.
I also like to cook, I do a lot of social outings. I like meeting people in a very relaxed mood like in a wedding, you know weddings are very joyous occasions so we are happy and we celebrate. We see young couples start their lives and we also mentor them, impacting knowledge of what I have learnt.
What about your time with family?
For instance, I try to clear my desk before I go home. I don’t carry files home because I close sometimes very late. Office time is office time and when I am home I try to devote my time to my family. I cook the soup that we eat. I still go to the market and sometimes when I’m there trying to shop for soup things or buying my goat meat and somebody is shouting “Madam SERVICOM.” It could be very embarrassing sometimes so I have learnt to go to the market very early to quickly do my shopping and leave. The greeting is heartwarming but sometimes there is an unnecessary scene created which I try to avoid.