With a new culture of public service enthroned, a new generation of ‘public managers’ who can see rent-seeking and ethnic power play as the dominant script of public service in Nigeria, concocted the game plan that inexorably distorted the workforce composition in favour of contractors and politicians in disguise. The proportion of the workforce in this mold may be in the minority at first, but today, they constitute a significant number and are perhaps in charge.
A second factor that compounds the first is Nigeria’s unemployment crisis that has messed terribly with the already compromised gatekeeping task of the civil service commission. With the encroachment of bureaucratic corruption and the totality of what we now call the Nigerian factor, it became possible for just anyone who has failed to get desired employment to turn to government work, especially the public service. and everyone knows the perception of slackness that attends working with the government. The dereliction of duty that comes with this lackadaisical attitude to work moderated by smartness or being streetwise and remote control by godfathers is directly proportional to the lowering efficiency of the public service. So, we end up with all sorts of people who get into the public service with all sorts of “qualifications” and documents and “competences”. Public offices are thus transformed into a part of the clientelist network of prebendal rent-seekers who poach on the normlessness that the structural adjustment programmes of the 1980s inserted into the weakened public institutions in Nigeria.
The question of who a public servant is carries the burden of the historical struggle to forge an institution that would carry the weight of government and governance. From Weber’s theoretical fabrication to the British administrative tradition, the idea of the public service has been defined around the concept of a vocation characterized by public-spiritedness.
Weber gave us the understanding of a noble profession that is akin to a priesthood, a calling defined by spirituality of service that takes the idea of a supreme being serious as a means of achieving integrity and human relationship with others in the workplace. As a noble and spiritual calling, the vocation of public service demands honor, integrity and a selfless dedication that is founded on deferred gratification of those base desires that move ordinary humans.
The Levites in the Scriptures had to defer their lots for the greater glory of Israel! Thus, for a public servant who understands, public values are more important than private interests. Public-spiritedness therefore ensures that a public servant is bound by the ethos of personal and public accountability for his or her responsibilities to the public he or she has been called upon to serve selflessly.
Public-spiritedness is backstopped by a professional competence that makes the public servant more than just a dispassionate broker of ideas and institutional memory into a great exemplar of hard work and skilled commitment. The nobility of the public service vocation is measured in the consequences of applying the professional skills and competences to public issues and seeing the results in the democratic service delivery that empowers the well-being of the citizens. When, as in the case of Nigeria, the public service is burdened with too much dysfunction that undermines this spirituality and destroys the capacity readiness of the public service, then its noble credentials become tattered. Indeed, this is the very implication of weak institution that makes the objectives of democratic governance in Nigeria a very difficult one for consecutive governments since independence. This is the reason why democracy has not yet been empowering for Nigerians. Democratic dividends come from a truly functional public service with truly committed and ethically conscious public servants who are dedicated to the idea that gave birth to the profession in the first place.
Since the public service cannot reform itself, the onus falls on the government to jumpstart the rehabilitation of the public service not only to achieve its former glory but also to become sufficiently ready to face current and future challenges of national development in Nigeria. One of the most delightful reform moves that the Nigerian government has undertaken, as far as I am concerned, is the inauguration of the National Strategy for Public Service Reform (NSPSR) and its iteration in current strategic plan for reform of the Federal civil service. These documents capture the vision and mission of restoring the dignity, nobility and efficiency of the public service in Nigeria. They outline the fundamental objective as transforming the Nigerian public service system into a world class institution delivering effective goods and services to Nigerians. However, what we need to insist on is that restoring the nobility and efficiency of the public service system in Nigeria is more than just achieving some operational and technical details of reform. On the contrary, we need more in terms of reform dynamics that encompass more than the public service itself.
I have called this a cultural adjustment programme that looks more towards cultural and value reorientation than just operational and structural reform details. Nigeria as is, lacks a national integrity system and a deep framework of values that conditions its national life. The state and all its apparatuses are seen by many, politicians, public officials and even the citizens, as the national cake to be shared and consumed unscrupulously without any thought for anything else. If the public service must function efficiently and optimally within the dynamics of vision set out by reform strategic plan, then the national psyche need to change first. Nigeria, or any other nation for that matter, needs values to be able to function. And this must be a value orientation that will encompass both leaders and followers. It is through the lens of values that both the leadership and the followership are able to see clearly what direction the policy architecture of the nation ought to be oriented. Valuelessness is directly proportional to directionlessness! Institutional reform is founded on the retrieval of a national sense of direction. Chief Olusegun Obasanjo saw the significance of this in 1999 when he announced the need for a moral rebirth in Nigeria. Such a moral rebirth must be factored into the dynamics of education reform that starts very early with a new set of young and impressionable citizens about the values of serving Nigeria without expecting anything in return. That was what Simeon Adebo, Jerome Udoji, Samuel Manuwa, Joseph Imoukhuede and the many other patriots taught us. and that lesson is the very framework for national renewal.