Implementing a public sector culture change programme

Dr. Olaopa is executive vice-chairman, Ibadan School of Government & Public Policy (ISGPP).<br />

MY objective in this piece is to outline what I consider the democratic responsibility, which the public service owes to Nigerians. I have written several articles on the conviction that the public service is central to Nigeria’s democratic dispensation. And hence, it ought to receive constant vigilance in terms of reform evaluation and management.

It is this reform of the institutional and structural processes and procedures of the public service that will enable it perform optimally its democratic duty to Nigerians.

The democratic responsibility of the public service is the efficient and effective service delivery that will ensure that Nigerians enjoy and are empowered by the dividends of democratic governance.

Public service democratic responsibility however presumes a responsible political leadership and a vigilant electorate who recognizing that the ‘fish gets rotten from the head’ is able to use their electoral powers responsibly to remove incompetent leaders who are held strictly and uncompromisingly to performance accountability.

Such political leadership alone recognizes the value of policy and programmes effective execution and the imperative need for a non-politicised, functional, capable, professional, accountable and high-performing public service. It is such a leadership that recognizes that the devil resides not in rhetoric of sloganeering, but in the competences and skills of its first and second eleven and competence-based human resource management in its implementation engine room.

The Nigerian democratic experiment commenced in 1999 after many years of military interventions in politics that set the nation off course for many years. But with the commencement of democracy, the expectations of the Nigerian citizens have reached a fevered pitch about what the new Nigerian government would be able to translate democratic institutions and values into.

Alas, it has been a solid eighteen years now since democratic governance commenced in Nigeria, and we are still very far from what can be called a truly empowering democracy whose strength is a truly functional and efficient public service that delivers goods and services to Nigerians.

Nigeria’s democracy’s most debilitating challenge has remained a crippling infrastructural deficit that has rendered the infrastructural facilities most ineffective. From the road network to education, healthcare, electricity and transportation, Nigerians daily struggled to make sense of how and why democracy is not positively affecting their lives after eighteen years.

It is the responsibility of the public service to ensure that there is effective policy coordination with the political class to facilitate the smooth implementation of policies that will jumpstart Nigeria’s infrastructural strength in a way that will immediately impact Nigerians.

Unfortunately, again, the public service itself has been undermined by administrative pathologies that critically reduce its operational and functional capacities to backstop democratic governance in Nigeria.

Let me offer a brief diagnosis of the state of the public service in Nigeria. essentially, while the administrative dysfunctionality of the Nigeria public service owe so much to the importation of colonial administrative systems and structures, it is more to the Nigerian national elites that we must look for the inability to deconstruct the colonial basis of the public service in order to make it sufficiently developmental to serve the objective of postcolonial rehabilitation.

The Weberian administrative system which migrated with British colonialism was essentially legalistic and procedural in its deployment of rules and regulations as the effective means of achieving compliance and discipline. The challenge however, is not with rejecting this Weberian administrative system and its objective of law and order, but with the value basis of the system.

Deconstructing the system therefore implies injecting a dose of value reorientation to the profession of the public service in a manner that will enable the structures and institutions to function optimally through a deep understanding of what it means to be a public servant and to serve the nation.

Unpacking this failure to deconstruct the migrated administrative structure translated into several postcolonial troubles for the Nigerian state. One of the central and most unfortunate dimensions of the public service that suffered is the human resource management, the gateway without effective gatekeeping, through which many came into the public service without any understanding of its vocational objectives.

While in most public services in high-performing economies of the world, a functional managerial convergence has been achieved between the public and the private sectors, Nigeria is still unfortunately operating within the orthodox belief in public administration as government employment with job tenure and lifetime career.

This traditional understanding of the public service comes at the cost of seeing performance in terms of compliance and duties rather than tasks and productivity. What is missing is the 21st century understanding of the public service as a vocational calling undergirded by a professionalized HRM as an accreditation system with professional associations as its gatekeepers, codes of conduct to evaluate professional conduct as well as mechanisms and structures for enforcing administrative ethics.

And this is the very core of the reform of the public service, beyond just strict technical and technocratic matters. It is ensuring that the public service put in place a cultural change that will achieve two cogent reform objectives.

One, the cultural change will seek to transform the attitude and behavioral dynamics of public servants through the insertion of a new administrative mentality circumscribed by the ideals of public spiritedness and professionalism. Two, putting in place a solid HR structures with sufficient gatekeeping dynamics to attract those who are amply qualified to take over the public service with requisite competences, skills and entrepreneurial drives.

Both objectives derive from the emphasis placed more on winning the “heart and mind” as well as the commitments and enthusiasm of public servants than on the struggle to achieve mechanical compliance with the administrative “rulebook” through a rigid and uninspiring personnel management procedures and practices.

This is how “public servants” from the Levitical Order in the Bible through the pharaonic scribes before we arrive at the modern public servants functioned. It is however modern cultural and administrative exigencies, especially in Africa, that facilitated the decline of vocational values and virtues.

In Nigeria, bureaucratic corruption is critical to understanding this administrative dysfunction. It has engendered a debilitating culture of immediate gratification that is much preferred to the virtue of delayed gratification. This terrible culture of “something for nothing” inevitably created the deep-seated moral deficit in work culture and organizational behavior.

This is why a fundamental cultural change is urgently required as the change management model to infuse the public service with the reform dose necessary for transforming its institutional objectives. It is definitely institutions and their structural foundations and frameworks that ensure that public servants are constrained within certain institutional ethical boundaries that structure the ethical and administrative choices public servants can make.

Organizational and management culture, on the other hand, provides the required fillip and parameters that motivate public servants to respond to their professional calling to serve the public. Culture change therefore points at the fundamental and innovative addition to organisational frameworks and dynamics that enable the organisation to be better capacitated to act more efficiently and effectively.

Cultural change is centered round two administrative dynamics, public spiritedness and professionalism. Public-spiritedness places the responsibility of the professional within the context of a personal and public accountability that motivates the professional to personally hold him/herself responsible for the discharge of his/her duties to the public.

Most essentially, the public spirit ensures that the civil servant is not so preoccupied with the technical details of his/her responsibilities to the exclusion their human concerns.

On the other hand, professionalism is a concession to a well-trained workforce as well as a commitment to the value of neutral competence. It combines technical requirements with value orientation that become action-molding dynamics whose function is to positively constrain the public servant to serve efficiently and effectively. Both are supposed to engender the establishment and consolidation of a public service system of values that HRM will utilize as the essence of defining public service vocational strength.

What is called the public service system of values consists of a generic body of values that sufficiently captures the picture of an ethical and entrepreneurial public manager. A few of these values are important. One: public interest. A public service is judged on its capacity to interpret and implement the specific policies that will break the “public interest” into empowering democratic projects for the citizens. Two: merit. This is what conditions entry into the service, as well as human resource function in hiring, training, and retaining potential public servants.

Once a public service loses the merit factor, it essentially becomes de-professionalized. Three: equality. This has two applications. It means, first, that public servants’ career development must be founded on equality. And also more significantly that the policy making which the public servant supervises must not be seen to discriminate in terms of class, gender, income, ethnicity or religion. Four: respect for democracy. This requires that the public service be seen as an accountable, responsive and responsible institution that is determined to deliver goods and services to the citizens.

Five: citizen-friendliness. This professional value is measured in terms of the public servant’s awareness of the importance of the citizens in service delivery. The public servant is therefore constrained to treat citizens at all times with dignity, fairness and respect. Six: responsiveness.

This value revolves around the frank, timely and impartial advice that public servants are expected to give the government in terms of policy making. And this value is aided by the professional acumen that defines the capacity readiness of the public servants. Seven: accountability.

This value demands that public servants must be transparent, accept responsibility for decisions taken, submit to administrative scrutiny, and be dedicated to the best and prudent utilization of available resources. And eight: discretion. This capacity for discretionary judgment arises from the deep experience and training of the public servant, and allows him or her to identify the significance of a situation or policy out of the myriad others competing for administrative attention, and framing the situation or policy for discussion and administrative action.

The challenge of culture change therefore requires facilitating institutional and cultural reforms that reverse the current dysfunctionality in a way that restores the public service to optimal and professional functionality.

For the public service to regain its vocational glory, there must be a conscious effort to re-inject it with further dose of professional consciousness that will keep public servants on their toes with their professional responsibilities and mandates always right before their eyes.

This is the basic implication of rebranding the public service for better service. And it implies a change in the culture of doing things which cannot occur simply by changing regulations, structures, processes and technology, but by changing the orientation of public servants. The culture change needs to occur by changing the value orientation of the public servants.

Two reform frameworks are crucial for achieving this, I believe. The first is a crucial scheme of re-professionalization. Re-professionalization process constitutes a prominent dimension of the performance management system that is geared towards overcoming the capacity gap and to ensure that public servants keep performing no matter the challenge and no matter the time. This process comes in two dimensions.

The first dimension involves the need to evolve a new career management system leading to the acquisition of officers with capacities and skills in specialized fields of knowledge, and who are sufficiently incentivized to carry out their responsibilities.

The second dimension of re-professionalization has to do with the process of constant re-skilling as well as the deepening of strategic policy intelligence and action research in service. This dimension commences through a thoroughly reformed human resource management.

This means that the public service must overhaul its human resource practices to begin to recruit and retain the most talented people whose skills must be upgraded through an adequate training and re-skilling programmes.

The second reform framework involves the urgent establishment of a strong charter of public service ethics, appropriately domesticated into specific public service domains.

The ethical framework for public servants outlines the responsibility which the public service owes the society and the citizens and the question of how the public servants carry out their duty. The charter also integrates sanctions and rewards for ethical behaviour that pushes the boundary of an exemplary public service.

The ethical charter becomes programmatic through an ethical code of conduct which defines specifics: relationship between administrative staff, relationship with outsiders, money issues, corruption, sexual impropriety, professional misconduct, etc.

Transformation requires reforms. And no institutional reform is as crucial as that of the public service and the consolidation of its democratic responsibility to Nigerians. It is when the public service comes alive to its service delivery capacity that we can truly say that democratic governance in Nigeria has become truly empowering.

Olaopa is the Executive Vice Chairman, Ibadan School of Government and Public
Policy (ISGPP), Ibadan,,

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