Old Western Regional Civil Service As Best Practice For Nation-Wide Reform

Tunji Olaopa

(Being excerpt of lecture delivered as GUEST SPEAKER at the 7th Summit of the Heads of Service in the South-West Geopolitical Zone hosted by the Lagos State Government at Alausa, Ikeja on Wednesday, 28th of January, 2015.)

The Context

The political history of Nigeria is definitely incomplete without the recognition of the role that the old Western Region in Nigeria played in its total socio-political formation. More often than not, historians will remember the infamous ‘wild wild West’ and the ‘wetie’ political violence that contributed to the scuttling of the Nigeria’s first republic. There would also be a grudging, if acknowledged, recognition of the outstanding role played by Chief Obafemi Awolowo. Many contrary historical interpreters would even doubt that Awolowo is a saint of Nigerian history. If history were the action or inaction of world historic figures, then these interpreters would contend that Awolowo was directly complicit in the series of stormy events that led to the official beginning of the Nigerian Civil War and most of the horrific incidences that attended it. 

  More objective interpreters of history will be willing to factor in the singular transformation of the Western Region under the masterly political genius of Chief Awolowo. The infrastructural development of the southwest under his political watch was a testimonial to his capacity to see politics as a tool for bettering the lives of the people of the Western region. The AG’s party slogan then was ‘life more abundant’, and by the time the Western region would be winding down, the people of this region would be more willing to believe the epithet ascribed to Awolowo as ‘the best president Nigeria never had,’ than the rest of Nigeria. What I want to do in this contribution is to lay the foundation for a proper historical appreciation of the administrative synergy that went into the highly celebrated southwest success story under Awolowo’s watch as Premier. My specific intention is to outline the critical best practices, which could facilitate a proper reform trajectory for the Nigerian civil service, if taken serious and implemented with dogged determination. 

  The glory of the old Western region and its civil service, quite surprisingly, had something to do with the some false starts of the federal civil service, especially after the implementation of the Nigerianisation Policy that ensured that colonial administrative expatriates were replaced so rapidly with indigenous administrators. Two serious issues made this indigenisation policy counterproductive to its original intent. The first is that given the effect of the amalgamation policy of Lord Lugard, one of the immediate effects of the policy was the tension it initiated between merit and representativeness. In other words, when the Policy’s implementation entered parliamentary debate, it became an issue between those willing to tread the path of merit in recruiting administrators, and those urging the respect for diversity through representativeness. In the final analysis, the need for representativeness or quota won, and the civil service’s seed of bloated-ness got sown so early beyond effectiveness and efficiency. 

The second issue that undermine the federal civil service is a corollary of the first, and more cogent to the success of the old western region. Given the chaotic ambience of the federal civil service caused by representativeness, most of the top echelon of officials that were trained by the British opted to return to their regions as their first choice station. They got their wish when Obafemi Awolowo, Nnamdi Azikiwe and Ahmadu Bello all returned to their regions and decided to take their ‘First Eleven’ administrative officers with them. Thus, Adebo went to the west, Udoji went to the east and Akilu to the north. The reason Chief Simeon Adebo gave for his decision to return was, given the choice available to him, brilliant: In the Western Region, he would be having the privilege of dealing with a government that was not divided along tribal or ideological line. When he finally got to the west, he was not disappointed. He summed up the totality of his administrative years in his exciting memoir appropriately titled Our Unforgettable Years (1983). 

The summation of those years of toiling side by side with a political leadership that understood the yearnings of the people is what is today regarded in Nigeria’s administrative literature as the Awolowo-Adebo model—a solid testament to what a sound political-administrative leadership collaboration can do for the reform strength and governance capability of the civil service anywhere in the world. When the British consolidated its civil service, especially through the Northcote-Trevelyan Report and the Macaulay-led Committee on the Indian Civil Service Report, both of 1854, it had one singular objective: to create a critical mass of civil service officials, who will be well trained in character and learning as to provide a top flight support for executive policymakers. 

  The bureaucracy, both in theory and practice, is founded on its need to serve as the organisational structure for delivering the policy of government. That is why the ‘politics-administration’ dichotomy constitutes one of the founding binaries of public administration. This dichotomy implies that in order for administration to fulfill its original objective, it must ensure that it always remains a step removed from politics. Max Weber renders it in the form of anonymity, neutrality and impartiality of the civil servant. With this underlying institutional framework, the British civil service created a cadre system that entrenched a generalist class as the top administrative echelon of the civil service system. This was the general framework and philosophy of the system that colonialism would transport across the Atlantic to the third world countries. That was the system that had been considered as one of the greatest legacies that the British gave Nigeria. 

The cadre system was introduced to the Nigerian civil service in 1946 through the Harragin reform, which established the two-service structure:  ‘senior service’ and ‘junior service’. Given its reliance on the secretariat system of authority, the system functions through reliance on the maintenance of rigid distinctions between line and staff functions and, implicitly, on filling policy-making posts with generalist administrators. Subsequent to ‘encadrement’ of an officer after entry, based on the result of a competitive examination conducted by the Civil Service Commission, a newly recruited officer undergoes specified intensive training for a period.  He then enters an apprenticeship period called ‘probation’ as condition precedent to confirmation of appointment.  After confirmation, an officer acquires the status of a career officer, with all the entitlements, including pension rights.                

  This is the administrative baseline that produced the pioneers of the Nigerian civil service and made them into trustworthy and dedicated public servants, who imbibed the three basic characteristics of leadership, professionalism and public-spiritedness underlying the British administrative system. And they deployed the three into a rigorous reproduction of what they learnt from the British into the governance task of the newly independent Nigeria at their various regional civil services. By the time Simeon Adebo was singing his swan song as an administrative officer, he knew that he had fulfilled his ‘ministry.’ 

  When Simeon Adebo is referred to today as the ‘father of the Nigerian civil service,’ that honour did not come lightly. It is one that is bought with professional toil, spiritual uprightness and administrative character. He was professional enough to know that the essence of his calling was to serve the government to the best of his ability. He also recognised that, as the head of the civil service of the Western region, professionalism would amount to nothing if the civil service system were not allowed to continually reform its operational dynamics as the engine room of government business. 

  Louis Pasteur, the French scientist, once remarked that ‘chance favours only the prepared mind.’ Simeon Adebo was prepared. And he met in Chief Awolowo a political strategist, who had immense governance use for the administrative competences Adebo had learnt. The rest, as they say, is history! In the next part, we will examine the strict content of the Awolowo-Adebo administrative model and the reform consequences it produced in the civil service of the old western region.  

Adebo’s The Unforgettable Years 

There are two reasons why the old Western region has become a serious administrative reference for us in this series. The first is that it serves as a broad historical reminder of the role of administration in the realisation of the sparkling infrastructural achievements of Awolowo and the AG in the West. The second reason is that, within a specific bureaucratic context, it constitutes a simple but remarkable reform reference for any civil service that wants to become a world class institution for implementing government policies and delivering quality, efficient and effective services to the people. In the last part, we outlined the political and administrative dynamics that led to the good fortunes of the civil service of the western region, but unfortunately led to the urgent need to continually seek the reform of the federal civil service. By some kind of bittersweet paradox, the administrative good fortune of the old western region has now become a reference point by which the future of the Nigerian civil service can be calibrated into a world-class public service institution to serve the entire nation. 

When Simeon Adebo got to the western region, he met in place, already formulated, a policy blueprint that covered almost all areas of infrastructural requirement— education, transport, healthcare, sport and communication among others. And as we earlier noted, Adebo himself was not a fumbling civil servant, who had no idea of service. He had been well nurtured in the British administrative tradition in the art of administrative competence and cooperation. Awolowo had already raised the consciousness of the people on the slogan of ‘life more abundant.’ When Adebo arrived, he was read the riot act about what is needed to bring that slogan alive. As if Adebo had not known that fact already, he was told by Awolowo to leave the political complexity of policy formulation to him. All he required is that every policy initiative must always be accompanied by a detailed analysis of possible implications from every possible angle when finally implemented. Adebo translated this administrative mission into his own slogan: ‘Work more abundant.’ And as the head of service, he had to find the administrative means by which ‘work more abundant’ would yield ‘life more abundant’ without killing the workforce in the process or undermining the operational dynamics of the civil service.

  His administrative genius translated into eight straight best practices, which I can confidently wager, ought to serve as the stepping-stone for any civil service that wishes to become world class. First, there is the understanding of civil service as a service, a spiritual calling. This is all the more profound because Adebo had no special original calling into administration; he studied English! Yet, he came to a deep understanding of his vocation as more than just an employment. Adebo would definitely understand Abraham Maslow’s contention that ‘Duty cannot be contrasted with pleasure, nor work with play when duty is pleasure, when work is play, and the person doing his duty and being virtuous is simultaneously seeking his pleasure and being happy.’ This conception of service as a spiritual endeavour, therefore, permeated the entire workforce, top-down. It was definitely an appropriate starting point for development performance.

  The second best practice was the initiative on personnel management, and especially the solid rapport with the public service commission. It was only natural that someone, who considered his vocation as a spiritual calling would seek constantly to ensure that only the best personnel would become civil servants. The gate was, therefore, adequately kept to ensure the good values of service, dedication, commitment, delayed gratification, accountability, transparency, good character and so on remained sacrosanct in the heat of service. The critical reference point was the focus on manpower development as a fulcrum for raising a critical mass of professionals trained in the art of managing the public services. The founding of an Establishment and Control branch in 1956 ensured a steady supply of capacitated public officials, who could ensure a rising performance profile of the civil service in the business of governance. The fourth reform innovation concerned the establishment of a seamless town-gown rapport. The Western Region civil service facilitated the strengthening of its economic analysis capacity through a unique collaboration that brought together civil servants and academics in a town-gown relationship that infused civil service administration with debated and brainstormed ideas and innovation to function at optimal performance. The initial A-Club, which later transformed into a Regional Economic Planning Advisory Committee, took advantage of the proximity of the University of Ibadan and its brilliant scholars—for instance, Profs. Ojetunji Aboyade, Sam Aluko (from Ife) and a host of others— were the fountain source of intellectual insights for administrative progress. 

  The fifth reform reference in the Western region was the establishment of regular consultative forums that were meant to facilitate the smooth running of the organisation. Apart from the town-gown meetings, there were two other legs in consultation. The second was regular, once a month, meetings with permanent secretaries and professional heads of what used to be called departments but now understood as parastatals or agencies (which is the catch as much of public sector performance depends on effective oversight of agencies), to calibrate organisational objectives and find solutions to thorny administrative concerns. The third leg was the institution of a regular Public Service Forum as a critical discussion opportunity, especially for lower level officers, where issues and questions of significance to the civil service were discussed. The sixth innovation that Adebo took serious in facilitating a strong productivity profile among civil servants was a prestigious framework of staff development—especially a housing policy (at the Old Bodija in Ibadan) and a tenured privilege, which ensures that the service took care of a performing servant and ensures such a person is guaranteed an opportunity for a reasonably decent living and a reassuring pension. 

  There was, as the seventh reform framework, a vibrant social-work balance that saw to it that the civil service did not swallow up the entirety of a person’s life. Adebo saw that it would be counterproductive to keep people at work throughout the week without any semblance of sociality. All works and no play make a civil servant unproductive! All the social compensations put in place always ensure that you return to your work almost always refreshed and with new insights. The eighth and final reform best practice that oiled the productivity profile of the old Western region civil service was a democratic industrial relations framework within which labour is taken along in every decision making process. Adebo’s experience as a former secretary of the Nigerian Union of Railwaymen came in handy to prevent the kind of adversarial relationship of today wherein each party considered its own interests and locked out those of others. 

  ‘In the end,’ says Donald Trump, ‘you’re measured not by how much you undertake, but by what you finally accomplish.’ And in his administrative accomplishment, Adebo proved that leadership and innovation are indeed necessary conditions for high-end performance and productivity that could transform the development quotient of any government. In history, it is rare for any government to commend its civil service. There’s always some underlying antagonism that is short of sabotage between those that wield real power and those that supposedly play second fiddle to power. Yet, when Chief Obafemi Awolowo gave his valedictory speech at the Western Region, he was magnanimous in his commendation of a civil service that was ‘exceedingly efficient, absolutely incorruptible in its upper stratum, and utterly devoted and unstinting in the discharge of its many onerous duties.’ 

  However, translating these innovations unto the institutional framework of a larger-than-regional civil service requires more. And this is all the more so, when such a national civil service is right in the throes of bureau-pathological maldevelopment. In the last part of this series, we will sort through the administrative predicament of the Nigerian civil service and examine how reform could transform its performance profile. 

Bureau-pathologies and the Way Forward

In the first part, we outlined how the organisational development profile of the federal civil service became short-circuited. The first reason was through the trumping of meritocracy by the principle of representativeness that was meant to pacify Nigeria’s ethnic diversity. The second malforming factor was the decision by the three heads of the major political parties to return to their various regions with the best of their administrative officers. These two critical events led to a serious undermining of the capability readiness of the federal civil service, as the business organ of the Nigerian national government, to fulfil the promises of independence for Nigerians. 

  The reform of the Nigerian civil service, which had been ongoing since its inauguration in 1954, had only been yielding minimal dividends. Rather, from independence till date, the trajectory of organisational development of the institution was characterised by series of disruptions, false starts, hiccups, misinterpretations, administrative misses and fortuitous breakthrough that make it very difficult for the system to achieve a critical rethinking and reconsideration of our administrative framework. The simple reason for this is that before it reached maturation and commenced an institutional reformation, the Nigerian civil service became too bureaucratic to allow for its own reform. Like the British civil service in the late 50s and the 60s, the Nigerian counterpart equally became ‘a great rock in the tideline’— it developed an administrative class that, at the height of service’s professional success, did not discern the extent of rot that would engulf the status quo it defended before decay set in since 1975. 

What were the symptoms of this bureau-pathology? The first, one of the most immediate consequences of the Nigerianisation Policy and the principle of representativeness, was an obscene bloatedness not only in size, but also in workforce composition that led to a crippling redundancy. On the one hand, there was an administrative incidence, which persists till today, in which too many people are doing too little; too many doing nothing and too few doing too much. On the other hand, the bloated workforce creates a situation of trained incapacity or blind conformance in which contributions of managers, for instance, are valued not according to their merit but according to one’s rank in the hierarchy. This inherent dysfunction of the administrative framework predisposes officers only to be methodical and discipline as they respond to bureaucratic pressure, which compels them to adhere only to rules and regulations as an end rather than a means. 

  The second symptom of bureau-pathology is that unlike the Awolowo-Adebo model, the administrative leadership in the Nigerian Civil Service today enjoys insufficient authority, recognition and respect of the political class to be in a position to engineer fundamental change and thereupon, build, maintain and reinvent the celebrated professionalism that the service enjoyed in the 60s up to the mid-70s. The third symptom is generated by a worrisome ageing factor that ensured that those who are retiring are taking with them the much-needed managerial and institutional competences and successors are not forthcoming. The succession gap is further complicated by the low quality of the graduates from tertiary and government training institutions. Lastly, the managerial revolution that has since the 80s transformed the nature of work around the globe seems to have largely bypassed most of our civil services.

The unfortunate implication of all these institutional deficits translate into a very deep damage to the implementation capability readiness of MDAs, which are supposed to serve as the powerhouse of the civil service for policy management and implementation. The MDAs, as it were, are operating within the context of two conflicting administrative business models for reform— Weberianism and managerialism. In a summary, the Nigerian civil service, through its MDAs, is locked into an execution trap. This trap speaks to the MDAs’ lack of capability readiness to convert policies to an efficient and effective service delivery framework. To use a vehicle metaphor, the jet engine that ought to drive the civil service has been replaced by that of a Beatle engine. The execution incapacity of the MDAs is traceable to two major deficiencies, namely, (a) a fundamental conception-reality gap that ensures that the local condition and environment of administration in Nigeria almost always work contrary to the intent and trajectory of reforms; and (b) the institutional framework for thinking about reform in the civil service is equally deficient because the passion for reform is not accompanied by the knowledge of what it takes to successfully manage a reform process. Specifically, the MDAs are bedevilled by four chronic gaps— policy, process, capacity, resource and performance.

So the challenge is to reengineer or, to further our earlier vehicular metaphor—‘ring the engine’, to alter the elements of the MDAs’ management system as a business model and capacitate them to achieve effective execution of national development agenda. Capacitating them also raises the question of how they could at once be enabled to adapt to changes based on national imperative to improve productivity. This demonstrates the inevitability of implementing a civil service reform package that would be fundamentally different from existing reform frameworks, and essentially pay homage to the desire for transformation itself. One straight and unorthodox commencement point, which serves as a nod to the strength of leadership in administrative reform, is to recommend for the top echelon of the civil service executive a compulsory reading of Adebo’s memoir, Our Unforgettable Years. It can serve as a first lesson on how to become the public servant, or even constitute the civil service, that Nigeria requires today. As Benjamin Disraeli would say, in the extreme: ‘Read no history: nothing but biography, for that is life without theory.’ In this context, for civil servants, the autobiography would serve as a useful complement to administrative history in Nigeria— an insightful reminder that as civil servants, we can leave our names and reputations etched in national stone. 

  Leadership is the first of the nuts and bolts of administrative reform. Other reform efforts complement leadership at both the general and specific levels. Generally, governance reform requires, at most: (a) deploying a new governance model, which controls the national development constraining factors and long-standing structural weaknesses impeding the nation’s performance determinants that we all understood as the ‘Nigerian Factor’; (b) installing a new productivity paradigm that harnesses scarce resources optimally and deploys our best talents within and in Diaspora as multidisciplinary Think Tank and managers to the pressure points of the national economy that enables creativity and innovation as a national culture; and (c) in the face of dwindling national revenue due to the recent slump in global oil price, the nation needs to launch a new and integrated Waste Reduction Management System hinged to a new Maintenance Culture Model for restoring our ageing capital stock and restoring national infrastructure within the framework of the National Integrated Infrastructure Development Strategy. A core component of this strategy would entail faithful implementation of local content policy with the restoration of technicians and artisans cadre to institute new national labour standards and work culture. There is a need for a bi-partisan core Stakeholders movement around a national campaign to change current a-developmental national mental model and value system, especially as they manifest in money-induced political behaviour and a culture of ‘something for nothing’ in wealth creation. 

  At the strict administrative level, we need to spend the next three to five years to put in place a paradigm for rethinking the way we conduct the business of government. There is, however, a compelling need for fundamental shift in the intellectual base of the civil service moderated by new mentors and coaches as managers and supervisors, who will be able to lead employees, develop programmes and projects and apply e-government and PPP models to deliver better services and better integrated resources and programmes. A critical mass of such managers and administrators will, Adebo-style, oversee the recalibration of skills and competences that will lead to the appointment and retention of those Prof. Gratten has called ‘serial masters’—a new managerial corps with in-depth knowledge and competencies in a number of critical but mutually reinforcing domains. This leadership and managerial framework would be enough to rescue the MDAs from the dilemma of conflicting business models, and direct its impact points towards national imperatives. Furthermore, technological penetration and changing service’s business model also challenge our capacity to redefine the role of the public service and change structures and processes based on our ‘core competences’ and those services that will be contracted out to leverage capacities of the private sector and other non-state organisations. The speed at which civil servants are adjusting to the demands of technological literacy required for the system’s transition into the information age needs acceleration. A productivity-indexed compensation structure rooted in job evaluation and manning level analysis and a sustainable model of wage adjustment is desirable. This will take us away from current politically reactive decision-making model that supports adversarial industrial relations. 

  It seems incontrovertible to me that the civil service remains one of the solutions to Nigeria’s predicament—an agent of socioeconomic transformation. Yet the Nigerian civil service has remained less than optimal in its historical mandate. The Awolowo-Adebo leadership model in the old Western Region was singular enough to engineer the infrastructural transformation of that region in history. Can that success story be recreated at the national level? Yes. Are we ready to proceed? The jury is still out on that score. 

Dr. Olaopa is Permanent Secretary Federal Ministry of Communication Technology Abuja. 




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