TECHNONOMIX: The bane of innovation in public service

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“Do not confuse the art of the possible with the art of the profitable.”
There is a general concern about the creative and innovative bandwidth in Nigeria’s public service. In spite of its humongous budgetary allocation, especially to capacity building, it is worrisome that the measure of innovation in public service is nothing short of abysmal. The towering credentials of the administrators suggest that the problem with the public sector is neither the lack of education nor the absence of exposure. Evidently, a number of our finest countrymen hold positions in government ministries, agencies and departments. Others have been appointed to man sensitive positions that are crucial to the economic growth of the country. In contrast, and unfortunately so, our public service is generally seen as an “Innovation graveyard”, where there are no distinctions between the pastures growing over the decaying heads of geniuses and gulls. With policies upon policies, each one supposedly contradicting the other, public service in Nigeria is perceived as creativity and innovation dead-end. In this place, everything is in disarray. Thus, it is impossible to innovate as nothing happens except faffing.

Generally speaking, it is widely believed that public service is moribund and ineffective in its operations. Apart from being high-handed, and overly bureaucratic, it is commonplace for rent-seeking, and graft-dealing. In fact, public workers are generally perceived as mundane, incompetent, lazy and corrupt. They are also accused of cowardice – fearing to challenge the status quo in a bid to safeguard their pensions and gratuities. In passing, I have heard comments that suggest that the positions of private and public sectors be swapped. This is to ensure that proactively innovative and prudent managers are saddled with the responsibilities of our commonwealth, and channel the path for economic revolution through creative and innovative problem-solving techniques. Hitherto, this argument is also easily floored following examples of successful managers in the private sectors, who failed woefully in public service. This is not to suggest that managing public corporations is rocket science. In fact, it suggests otherwise. The Nigeria’s public service lacks the basic ingredients that make private sector innovatively effervescent and productively agile. This deficiency makes public service a stifling workplace, where geniuses are intellectually reverse engineered – experience intellectual atrophy and then retire!

Lofty and professional traits are each replaced with loathly and repressive ones. Urgency for nonchalance. Productivity for vapidness. Profitability for profligacy. Agility for languidness. Quality for inferiority. With its high stock for pettiness, and rumour mongering, the only attractions in public service are its offering of job security and ample time and opportunity to run side businesses. In fact, official workspaces could double as stalls for showcasing goods and services to readily available customers cum colleagues. Transactions are usually future dated and settled on monthly salaries that no one worked for nor truly deserves.

And following assiduous efforts of the government to create jobs and reduce poverty, more offices, agencies and parastatals have been (and are being) created to absorb the multitude of jobless citizens. And as public service continues to intumesce, it creates more hideouts for more rent-seekers, graft-dealers and benchwarmers, who contribute only to the wastage of tax payers’ funds. This aside, the peril of excessive budgetary overheads; servicing mostly recurrent expenditures. And as the state scores cheap points on jobs creation, it immediately loses decisive points on poverty alleviation and infrastructural development. Aside apparent mismanagement, workers’ salaries, in certain spheres of the public service, are held for months with little or no visible infrastructural development to compensate. Where these twin menaces are not existent, look closely – state properties are either being mortgaged or high-interest loans acquired for repayment by future generations. Assumedly, since there will always be a future to borrow from, our children can as well lend from their own kids. This is the kind of innovation that is prevalent in public operations – a cyclic rabidity that could continue endlessly till eternity.

Public service also offers passages for private sector veterans to wind down on their lofty careers. More often, the attractions of public service to these veterans are in the perceived state honours – titles – and the opportunity to slowly perch their aging nerves. It is mostly not to steer courses that engenders development. After many years of risk-taking, hustling and bustling, here finally is a prospect to be highly rewarded for doing very little or nothing at all. It is disturbing how several heroes in the private sectors morph into villains in public operations. This is especially disappointing following exhaustive examinations and recommendations that prescribed the commingling of insipid public service with bustling and forward-thinking private entrepreneurs.
These are some of the public opinions about public service and they are grave! While it will be impossible to address all the issues surrounding the dearth of innovation in public service, this article will focus on the conspicuous elements that must be addressed, should we decide to commence the journey of restitution to our economic Eldorado today. The journey of a thousand mile, starts with a single first step – they say!

QUALITATIVE EDUCATION, RESEARCH & DEVELOPMENT

The quality of any country’s workforce is totally dependent on its standard of education. This is the stream that replenishes labour. It would be entirely preposterous for an economy to identify its Achilles’ heels as the dearth of skilled labour, yet makes little or no effort to spiralling a revolution in human capacity development and the education sector. Any cause less than almost declaring a state of emergency in this sector would be tantamount to lip-servicing any development therein. It must be noted that the entire instability, as experienced in the economy today, have deep roots in the failure of our educational system. And so is the dearth of innovation in all facets of our economy.
There are reports that a larger percentage of recent graduates in Nigeria are not employable. They have good academic grades but little knowledge to match. This, first of all, is suggestive that there are jobs (work) everywhere in the country but there are no skilled personnel to pick them up (no workforce). Some of the deductions from these submissions are:
– Our knowledge institutions are decrepit and incapable of nurturing or replenishing our workforce. So, they need urgent saving;
– As our decrepit institutions continue to graduate more unemployable citizens, the rate of unemployment will increase;
– Continuous rise in unemployment hampers economic efficiency and productivity;
– Production will reduce. Consumption will rise; and so will importation (to satisfy the rising need). Labour would be exported; and poverty imported.
– Naira will fall. Inflation will rise. Increasingly, it might become difficult to defend our foreign reserve without excruciating agonies.
This is Nigeria standing against the mirror. Our lack of attention towards the education sector, could potentially leave us with serious crises on our hands.
As public service remains the biggest employer of labour in Nigeria (at all levels), it is not surprising that innovation in this section of the workforce is miserly or wanting. While I do not, by this expression, suggest that there are no intellectual sound and bright minds in government employment, the point is that the private sector provides more enticement to cerebral individuals than public sector. This can empirically justify the innovative edge of the former over the latter.
To create a balance of both sectors of the economy however, government must begin to create linkages between schools and the industries; in such manners that it benefits all. In another article titled “Toothpick Alert: A Cue for Software Industry development in Nigeria”, I stated as follows:

“…To create a linkage between our industries and the education sector, a “tax-rebate through school adoption” initiative should also be institutionalised. Under this program, every company in the country is enjoined to adopt a university or a university department…”
In addition to this suggestion, which I still hold to be true, an expansionary addendum is to ensure that certain ratios of budgetary allocation to government ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) are voted to education. This is to cultivate the industry skills desired by public operations and to augment the government funding in the sector and as well stimulate the creative and innovative bandwidth of both the industries and the schools. Do not forget that most of the MDAs have financial leeway to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), which can be targeted for this purpose for a certain number of years.
This initiative, if properly harnessed, has the capability to restore academic confidence and efforts in Research & Development across all facets of the economy, without any marginal rise in budgetary allocation. And In turn, springing industrial and technological revolutions in the country.

ENHANCED RECRUITMENT PROCESSES

Following a number of intellectually stimulating discussions, I opine that, given our political and ethnocentric makeups, this is particularly a touchy subject needing a full exposition of its own. However, I will scratch the surface quickly and jump to the next. Of course, with the foresight of dealing thoroughly in this subject in another article.
There is no denying the fact that the recruitment process into public service is one of the reasons innovation is scarce in that sector. I believe that any system that is overwhelmingly burdened with vested interests, or largely perceived to be so (even when it is not), cannot but suffer such inadequacies. A Frankenstein model is the Federal Character system. While I am not totally averse to it, given the ingenuity of the context for it creation, I believe strongly that it should be a temporary arrangement, relevant only within a stipulated window, to fix the original problem that created it. The fact that no successful private organisation runs it proves the efficacy of the arguments against it. Wherever positions are allocated based on ethnicity, competence must suffer; however, marginal. It is impossible that it will not.
Apart from the fact that it scuppers the cultures of professionalism and competence, it is divisive and also, opens a floodgate for recruitment misappropriations.

NON-ADAPTIVE ORIENTATION OF PUBLIC MANAGERS
Many people also believe that public corporations are government holdings that either have limitless budgetary allocations or are simply too resilient to fail. This perceived notion of limitless budgets creates the impression that everything could be procured and we really do not need to attempt to solve any problems through analytical thinking. Since we have the funds, we rather buy! The resultant effect being intellectual subjugation and the prohibition of talented and adventurous groups and individuals in public service from the big thinking to think big. Innovation in such climes is impossible.

The limited budgets available to private organizations is one of the reasons spurring their innovative and creative drives. Since they cannot buy everything, they must create some, as well as attract the best brains available in the pool at the right price. Sincerely speaking, it is not true that public organizations have limitless budgets. Rather, it is the mentality that budget efficiency means “defraying all allocations” in a particular fiscal year. This does not literally mean that all projects would be delivered. The idea is to start and manage the slacks and spillages. A private sector innovative approach would rather be the delivery of all projects at reduced costs. This is the economics of cost efficiency as against budget efficiency in practical Nigeria’s context.

Still on orientation, the obstinate and mechanical interpretations of institutional mandates is another clog in the innovative wheel in public service. Mandate interpretations are much easier and straightforward in private sector. Profitability seems to say it all. Unfortunately, it is not the same for MDAs. Attentions shift to more social baselines such as environmental safety, economic stability, political firmness etc. Usually, public departments with world-class solution development infrastructures will often stifle the innovative acumen of its employees by prohibiting them from developing new solutions, especially if it has no direct bearings to their objectives. While this might sound defendable, it is stifling. Instead, and supposing we have one, such ideas, rather than being suppressed, should be tossed into a national laboratory for development.

Slogans like “This is a not a software development company” pervade MDAs with screaming investments in software solutions. On the flip side, they also reflect the intention of such MDAs to subjugate innovation. If you have the capacity, use it!

FUNCTIONAL ADJUSTMENT TO SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGICAL MINISTRIES
One of the most neglected sectors of the economy is Science and Technology. Actually, it is the education sector that has been neglected and its linkages with the industries that it is supposed to serve broken and abandoned. Science and Technology are knowledge areas requiring qualitative recycling through knowledge institutions. Therefore, pumping money alone into the sector will achieve nothing except further wastage without some functional adjustments.

Such adjustments should be centralised (only) by objective. By this, I imply that the Ministry of Science and Technology, for example, should have knowledge about the scientific and technological needs of all other ministries, agencies and departments of government. Thereafter, they should be empowered to oversee the coordination and development of those needs in collaboration with the MDAs, of course. Coupled with the initiative for additional funding for education, research and development above, Science and Technology hubs would spring up. This too, will engender industrial and technological revolutions in the country.

Despite the foregoing, let us state unequivocally without fear of contradiction that this same public service that cuts such a dismal image of disorderliness is the bedrock upon which the Nigeria government, economy and society rest. Without prevarication, it is the mettle, resilience and unwavering commitment of notable individuals within the service that have sustained the republic through countless instances of socio-political and economic vagaries. It is to these unsung heroes that we owe our continued sovereignty in spite of private sector interests that exploit and undermine the commonwealth through self-aggrandizing capitalist activities.

While the private sector busies itself with profit making market operations, it is the public service that provides and engenders the stable environment within which the commonwealth of all can thrive.

“Ayodeji Odusote is a Solution Analyst with the Central Bank of Nigeria. He is a blogger and a social commentator, focused majorly on Technology and its Economic Impact; using Nigeria as a Case Study. He can be reached via email: aareago@gmail.com. His social media handles are as follows: twitter: @aareago, facebook: Aare Ago, and aareago.blogspot.com.”

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