As I promised, this intervention is on the expediency of looking at how the Oronsaye Report can be reset to restructure the public service that is not in a position to serve public interest at this time. So, this second part is also about the need to warn the president’s men that mistakes of the past should be avoided.
I am talking about strategic errors in implementing only one popular item in a string of recommendations in past reform committee reports. This has happened to a number of good reform panel reports including Jerome Udoji Report (1972-1974), Dotun Philips (1985), etc. The aforementioned reports I had read and contextually reported contained more useful recommendations than the only two items military governments took just for the gallery and allowed to over shadow the meat (“koko”) of the recommendations.
From Udoji report they took only the aspect that concerned remuneration package, which triggered famous (Udoji award) arrears. Dotun Philips was only noted for re-designating Permanent Secretary as Director General who should retire with the government that appointed it. The Udoji and Philips reports contained so many relevant and creative policy issues that would have repositioned and re-professionalised the service. Nothing else was revisited by the authorities after the least relevant but most convenient and popular items were promoted and implemented therefrom.
So, we are on the march again with Oronsaye Report, which also contains so many issues to be reformed for the public service to be compact and less draining on the economy. The impression being created by the political officers who disclosed this is that the public service comprising the mainstream civil service, extra-ministerial departments and agencies we have chosen to call ‘parastatals’ is the target. The Oronsaye Report is a product of the 2012 ‘Presidential Committee on Restructuring and Rationalisation of Federal Government Parastatals, Commissions and Agencies’. It is not about the Civil Service that the Federal Civil Service Commission (FCSC) and the Office of the Head of the Civil Service of the Federation (OHCSF) coordinate.
Before everything went wrong in Abuja, the office of the arrowhead of the presidential bureaucracy, the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF) was coordinating the sector the Oronsaye Report covers – the agencies of government that should be restructured and rationalised for efficiency and cutting cost of governance. In other words, when there was a functional presidential bureaucracy (1999-2007) the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF) Obong Ufot Joseph Ekaette was not ‘inferior’ to the pioneer Chief of Staff to the President, Major General Abdullahi Mohammed (rtd) under President Olusegun Obasanjo who created the Office. I covered the place then and so I confirmed then that the SGF didn’t have to tell the then Chief of Staff why he wanted to see the President – in his capacity as Secretary to the (Federal) Government, Secretary to the Cabinet, Secretary to the Security and Defence Council. Besides, the very resourceful SGF then, a retired federal Permanent Secretary didn’t have to take permission from the Chief of Staff about meeting the President. Nor was there a hint of any adversarial gatekeeping by General Abdullahi who respected and cooperated effectively with Obong Ekaette until May 29, 2007 when the latter left office.
At that time, the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, a creation of the Constitution, was respected as the superior office in the presidential coordination of the Public Service comprising the Civil Service and Ministerial Departments and Agencies, etc through the Head of the Civil Service of the Federation (HCSF), the Chairman of the Federal Civil Service Commission (FCSC), and other chairmen of constitutional bodies listed as Federal Executive bodies in the constitution. What this means is that when there was indeed a presidential bureaucracy, the SGF was the undisputed head of that bureaucracy. Not anymore with the curious abdication of that remarkable arrangement and elevation of the office of the Chief of Staff who now handles the cruise control of the bureaucracy. It is now more complicated, especially if the SGF doesn’t have any civil or public service experience – as the current one.
I began to draw attention to this anomaly in 2016 even in the first Inside Stuff article. I had then drawn attention to the fact that the President Buhari’s first SGF, Babachir David Lawal was a neophyte in public service with the first Chief of Staff who also was largely a private sector operative. This was where the rains began to beat the public service under President Buhari, as manifested in the altercation between the Oyo-Ita and the late CoS-P over the Maina case at Cabinet Meeting in the full glare of the national TV. Now back to the brass tacks: Not surprisingly, I got some responses from some senior public servants who read the first part of the article last week and were feeling disturbed about some connotations from the significant Oronsaye Report 2012 so far. The civil servants are beginning to fret that the Finance Minister who hinted at the expediency of implementing the report and sundry commentators are sending wrong signals to the cost-cutting enthusiasts in the administration. They are disturbed that there is a groundswell of opinion that the public service (including the civil service) is over-bloated and so there should be downsizing or retrenchment – to cut cost of governance. This, to them, is the crux of the matter. One of the concerned officers told me to note the following crucial facts usually ignored by the media and public affairs commentators on public service reforms:
That the public service is a silent institution by structure, dumb but not deaf, can neither be seen nor heard, has no right of reply in spite of misinformation, wrong stereotypes and assumptions. He says for instance, it is very wrong to assume that:
1. The public service is over-bloated. No, it is not. Civil servants have been retiring every day, every month based on years of service (35 years) or age (60) whichever is earlier. At the Federal level the records are computerised, automatic, no manipulation – thanks to IPPIS.
2. But since 2004, I doubt if there has ever been any open deliberate policy on recruitment into the federal civil service. Instead there has been a ban on recruitment citing funding over these years. Please check the Federal Civil Service Commission to note when a deliberate policy to hire happened. It is true that some quiet, discretionary recruitments have been made but this is limited, not service-wide.
3. The 8 years tenure limit, positive as it was, resulted in a collateral damage through the loss of some experienced senior civil servants from the Service.
This was perhaps part of the reasons President Muhammadu Buhari decided to halt it.
4. The public service is currently an empty shelf, with huge vacancies at the entry and medium officer grade levels over the years. It requires a deliberate policy of competitive recruitment process to fill the huge gaps in manpower resources, skills and capacity.
5. It is also not true that public servants’ salary is a drain on public purse. How much do they earn? A director earns about N400, 000 a month before deductions of tax, pensions, NHF etc. In an MDA, they are six to eight directors and maximum of 12 -20 like in Health or Education Ministry. Then level 08 entry level for young graduates earn about N60,000 or less. And confusion arises when politicians/political appointees with huge salaries on government pay roll brand themselves public servants.
6. The collapse of training culture and training institutions is a major problem: poor facilities; inadequate skilled manpower, poor remuneration, ethical issues, etc
7. Comments on public service should be based on empirical facts such as how many civil servants we have on IPPIS pay roll? How many have retired in the last five to 10 years? How many have been recruited since then? What gap exists and in what areas? What is the actual wage bill? Can we disaggregate the pay as per grade so that the public will know? How do we differentiate politicians and their appointees’ salaries from actual wage bill of civil servants?
These points, though made from the view of officers who may be affected by the mergers, are quite germane for proper understanding of what government just advertised through the Finance Minister, Hajia Zainab Shamsuna Ahmed who is already sweating about how to source the federal workers wage bill as oil revenue has been dwindling amid the devastating Covid-19 pandemic.
The president’s men who should be enthusiastic and even serious about public service reforms should not allow any mismatch at this time. There should be clear understanding of what public service reforms entail at this time. It shouldn’t be about reduction of cost of governance alone. Any reform agenda at this time should also be about how dynamic capabilities of the public service can reduce cost and at the same time touch off efficiency in the public service.
It is a time to migrate from rhetoric to action plans on re-inventing the public sector. There are too many documents on public service reforms – even before independence. In this age of the big data when experts even in global context are saying ‘Data is Africa’s new blood’, Nigeria cannot afford to parade a public service that celebrates mediocrity. The Economist had declared since 2017 that the world’s most valuable resource was no longer oil but data. Only a modern public service, not politicians can convert this statement to a public policy that will make our country leader of Africa. The current public service of Africa’s most populous country is acutely suffering from what Dr. Goke Adegoroye in 2006 called ‘Succession Crisis’ in a paper he presented in a Commonwealth’s “Advanced Seminar on Public Service Reform” in New Zealand. I was there. I covered it for The Guardian. There is a serious ‘succession crisis’ in Nigeria’s public service that the 2012 Oronsaye Report alone cannot cure. The Buhari administration should just reset the 2012 report to begin a comprehensive overhaul and renewal of the public service in which civil servants can also institutionalise war on corruption.
The EFCC, ICPC and CCB, which should be merged, in any case, according to the Oronsaye Report cannot record sustainable success story on anti-graft war unless there is a strong and reliable public service. Our own former maximum leader General Sani Abacha, was able to loot our treasury with all his strength, to the tune of more than $5 billion because there was no viable public service from the Villa through the federal secretariat to the Central Bank of Nigeria. None. So, Mr. President, this is a time to listen to the voice of reason about strong institutions that can feed democracy. The SGF, the head of the presidential bureaucracy will not deliver on the mandate of his office on the altar of being nice without being competent; neither will the Head of the Civil Service move the Civil Service forward without being resourceful. Similarly, the Chairman of the Federal Civil Service Commission would not be able to move forward on the rejuvenation and revitalization requirements of the civil service unless his age of ideas is properly aligned with the current age of big data. Our president doesn’t need a strong Chief of Staff. He needs a strong public service that is capable of rebuilding the broken walls of democracy at this moment.