Mandarin: In search of the next generation public servant
Global administrative history is often located in the administrative events and occurrences in Europe and North America that have come to be a part of how we conceive of public administration in contemporary times. Europe is often the historical base of how we have come to perceive the organisation of the human society. Woodrow Wilson in the United States and Max Weber in Germany are two significant names that we cannot but fail to associate with the emergence and consolidation of the discipline and the practice of public administration anywhere. Napoleon, feudal Europe, Prussia and Britain itself contributed significantly to how we come to understand the historical evolution of administration and the act of governing. For instance, feudalism in Europe marked a shift from large scale, empire-size and centralised administration, to small and localised administrative units around small tribal bands headed by a chief or leader who wielded all the public powers. Within this administrative system, loyalty to the sovereign was replaced by fealty to the lord of the manor. When feudalism was replaced by the system of monarchy, it instigated the conception of the public servant away from the “royal household” of the feudal period to the “royal service” of the King. The public servants were essentially in the King’s service (curia regis). And it is to Britain and Germany that we owe a comprehensive understanding of the professional components of a functional civil service.
Even some of the significant conceptual apparatuses of public administration owe much to Europe. For instance, it is the King’s administrative duty in France that gave public administration the word “bureaucracy”, from the French word bureau. “Bureau” derived from the brown woolen cloth (or la bure) in the Chamber of Accounts, where the administrators laid out their financial accounts. This Chamber of Accounts was later called the Bureau, and hence in the 1300s, the word “bureaucracy” came into existence.
A grand administrative history moves from Africa through Europe to North America. However, such a global history will miss out some significant cultural and etymological points if it fails to engage with the administrative experiences of Asia, and particularly China. In today’s world, China is often the reigning metaphor for authoritarian statehood, outside North Korea or the defunct USSR. Yet, China’s administrative trajectory rivals that of Britain and Prussia. For one, the stability and economic progress that projects China as one of the major economic power on the globe today is a testament to an even more tougher and efficient administrative machinery that is sufficiently capacitated to achieve economic stability and infrastructural development. But while China will not pass any human right scrutiny of its developmental success, there are significant lessons that African states, and especially Nigeria, can learn about a developmental state whose achievements are founded on a functional and optimally productive public service.
The key word which, like the “bureau,” China has contributed to administrative history, and especially to the way we perceive the public service and the act of governance, is “mandarin.” The word mandarin has several lexical meanings ranging from a citrus fruit to the official language of China. A mandarin could also be regarded as a high-ranking intelligentsia. However, the most important lexical denotation of the term for our purpose is its reference to a senior public official, especially formerly of Imperial China. I will draw three fundamental meanings derivable from being a mandarin bureaucrat that has serious implications for being a public official in Nigeria today.
The first important connotation of a mandarin bureaucrat is that he was a scholar-official. The mandarin public servants of the old Imperial China were distinguished by two significant pastimes, apart from their essential responsibilities as public servants. The first is their love for literature, and the second is their immersion in Confucian philosophy and pedagogical dynamics. Confucius remains the eternal Chinese philosopher. In fact, he was also a foremost bureaucrat who eventually rose to become the governor of a town; an administrative position that eventually contributed to his understanding of the individual as a person and as a public official. We will see the effect of Confucianism in the mandarin official soon, but being a scholar-official immediately alerts us to the obligation of mediating between theory and practice in order to function optimally in government and governance. Rather than being a practitioner that is lamely stuck within the drudgery of administrative practice, or being a public administration theorist blindly spinning theories of how administration should work, the mandarin scholar-official orient theories by his practice, and energize his vocation by theoretical insights. The mandarin public servant therefore constituted an expert-insider!
The second essential meaning of a mandarin derives from the convoluted etymology of the term, mandarin, whose linguistic root stretches through Portuguese to Malay to Sanskrit. The Sanskrit mantri/mantra identifies the mandarin as a counselor. This position therefore anticipated the contemporary understanding of the public servant as a critical and professional adviser to the Minister under whom he or she serves. The public servant as counselor possesses the professional competence to direct the course of policy conception, implementation and evaluation. This is where Confucianism as a philosophy of personal and governmental responsibility or righteousness comes in. Confucian ethics is founded on a conception of morality that links individual character to proper social relationship and a correct working of government. In other words, becoming a good public official—a good mandarin—requires individual character which is the basis of personal accountability and righteousness. These are the two significant bases for achieving a proper counseling responsibility for Imperial China.
In Confucius’ ethical framework, public office demands an individual who has first achieved an understanding of who he or she is before arriving at a proper conception of what public service demands. Government service, for Confucius, is serious business that can only achieve public accountability from the perspective of personal accountability. Confucianism is founded on proper conduct, as an individual and as a government official. To do things right, you must have the capacity to behave and think right. As a scholar-official, and counselor to several governments, Confucius himself was faced with the responsibility of living according to his teachings.
The third important basis for becoming a good counselor for an Imperial Chinese public official is that becoming such a scholar-official demanded achieving merit through rigorous qualifying administrative examinations. Becoming a public official cannot be a function of an arbitrary selection. It must be founded on some specific administrative entry point that serves to gate-keep the profession if it must remain a noble profession. Imperial China was therefore current with other administrative tradition across the world—the ancient pharaonic Egypt, the ancient Roman Empire, feudal Europe, modern Germany and contemporary Britain—on the professional status of the public servants as the guardians of administrative values and ethos that benefit the public. In fact, the rigorous examinations ensured that Imperil China benefitted from a highly knowledgeable, highly professionalized and highly morally conscious bureaucracy that is a sine qua non for a legitimate and development-minded government.
What then does the Imperial Chinese mandarin civil service system say to Nigeria’s administrative reform process? Nigeria’s administrative challenge of the twenty first century is that of installing a performance management system that will transform Nigeria’s productivity profile in a way that will make democratic governance empowering for Nigerians. However, between a performance management system and an improved productivity profile, there stands an urgent imperative of creating a new crop of dedicated, knowledgeable and transformational public managers with the requisite professional credentials to manage the Nigerian public service as a world class institution with the efficient capacity for democratic service delivery to all Nigerians. Put in other words, Nigeria urgently needs the service of a new body of professional mandarins who can recalibrate the meaning of “public service” and professionalism. This is important because the perception of what a public service is, or who a public servant is, is important in the transformation of what such a public servant can achieve in transforming administrative services in a state.
Yet, evolving a new crop of public managers faces serious challenges at the conceptual and administrative levels. The Nigerian state at independence inherited the British Weberian administrative founded on strict compliance with administrative rules and regulations. This system created an input business model that failed to produce any significant result in terms of performance and productivity. Like her British counterpart, the Nigerian public service, under the weight of bureaucratic rules and compliance dynamics, became a “great rock in the tide line,” resisting change and transformation that will enable it complement democratic governance. To transform the public servants into a mandarin corps, and the essence of public service, implies walking the tightrope between professional dedication to administrative rules and regulations on the one hand, and on the other, vocational discretion—the moral conviction of what is right beyond the rules and the regulations.
In moral philosophy, deontology recognizes the moral responsibility one has to do one’s duties, whatever may come out of it as consequences. Thus, one has a moral responsibility not to steal, even if one starves and dies in the upholding of that moral obligation. However, if the moral obligation to uphold administrative rules and compliance with one’s professional responsibilities had led the Nigerian administrative system to an inefficient juncture, does that decree the rejection of administrative deontology? No. what is required to create a mandarin administrative system is to outline a new dynamics of administrative responsibility that find a balance between duty and discretion.
A proper framework of professional ethics therefore becomes an indispensable reform ingredient in facilitating the emergence of the Nigerian public service as a world class administrative institution. Professional ethics, supervised by the federal and state civil service commissions, and codified in the code of administrative conduct and code of ethics, becomes an actionable document that not only hold the public manager responsible to his or her professional duties and responsibilities, but equally provide a matrix that enable the public servant to interject the idea of what is right or proper in professional conduct. This becomes crucial because in managing public trust, a public servant especially in a country like Nigeria will be called upon to make decisions on a variety of conflicting public values that can direct policy this way or that way. Discretion combines personal character with moral focus and public integrity to enable a mandarin public official determine what would be in the best interest of the public. Discretionary judgment is however not just something one taps from the air; it grows out of persistent training and other re-professionalisation schemes that assist the public servant to properly differentiate the significance of important policies. Discretion imposes ethical judgment on rules, regulations, legislations and their applications to policies and their implementation.
We therefore have the core reform challenge of fashioning a mandarin corps of public manager in Nigeria. It is easy to recognize the success of the public officials of old in the new China. What Nigeria has to do to achieve the developmental state that create economic development and political stability is to generate the will for reform aimed at administrative efficiency. Yet, administrative efficiency comes with creating mandarin officials who can maneuver between rules and the discretion to apply them ethically.
Dr. Olaopa, executive vice chairman, Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP), Ibadan.
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