In this interview with ONUKOGU KANAYOCHUQU JUBAL and AYODEJI HARRY ADEBAYO, the director-general of the Bureau of Public Service Reforms (BPSR), Dr Joe Abah, speaks on a wide range of issues, including the Public Service reforms and the activities of the bureau geared towards reforming service delivery.
Long before your coming, there had been talks about re-organising the Nigerian Public Service. There have been panels, white papers and commissions through the ‘80s to the present time and we are still talking about beating the public service into shape. Are we ever going to get there?
Often, I say that I have been doing the same job for the last 30 years in different places. I did the same job in the UK and I remember a permanent secretary telling me that the public service in the United Kingdom has been coping with public service reforms for over 400 years. To that end, I will like to correct this notion that there is a magic wand which we wave and we will never need to reform again. Reform is constant and it helps you to constantly get better at doing things; you try to improve on what you have and continue to get better. Advanced countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany, United States and others are constantly reforming, improving and getting better at what they do over time.
Let me define reforms. Reforms are, essentially, changing something for the better, such that it can benefit citizens. With regards to your question, a lot has happened in the past that have been termed ‘reforms’ when, in actual fact, they were administrative reviews which did not make any impact on the citizenry. So, whether it is that of Dotun Philips, the Adebo Report or all these commissions and monetisation policies which do not really affect the life of my grandmother in the village or other ordinary Nigerians, they are just administrative changes. The real reforms are the sort of reforms that have gone on in the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), where the prevalence of fake drugs has been virtually wiped out and the agency has been hailed as one of the 20 best food and drug control agencies in the world.
Another example is the anti-corruption campaign. Yes, we still have corrupt people around the place, but then, you know that organisations like the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and the Independent Corrupt Practices and other related offences Commission (ICPC) have made a big difference. The Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) as well has made a big difference in the ways in which taxes are collected. You can see the reforms ongoing in our aviation sector; the way our airports are looking now cannot be compared to the way in which they looked before.
There are changes in our health system, such that these changes were enough to help us defeat the dreaded Ebola, guinea worm and we are on the verge of defeating polio. These, to me, are the real reforms and, with due respect to all those who initiated these ‘reforms’, I would say that the real, major reforms in this country are 10 years old.
But then, I think we need to do a lot more and we need to build on these sorts of real reforms, so that the focus can always be on the citizens. The monetisation policy and fiscal reforms are great, but I think that over the last few years, the public service has focused too much on itself and not enough on the citizens that pay us to work on their behalf.
These reforms are in three phases; the first was the rebuilding between 2009 and 2011; the second was the transformation between 2012 and 2015 and the third phase is the world-class public service, which is supposed to run from 2016 to 2020. Having made it through two phases, how do you think the bureau has fared and what is ongoing in this third phase?
I think you just quoted from the original version of the National Strategy on Public Service Reforms that was produced in 2009. Sadly, since the completion of that strategy, the government completely lost focus on the reforms, such that the strategy was never processed through the Federal Executive Council and has never been formally adopted and agreed on. That is why, when I became DG in 2013, the first thing I did was to get that strategy back on the agenda, to revise and update it. This action brought about a new set of timelines; so, we have a re-building phase presently, which we expect to run until the end of 2017. In addition, we have the transformation phase that will run from early 2018 to the end of 2020, in line with the Vision 20:2020 timeline that we have. After that, the world-class phase can now come into effect till 2025, although the Ministry of Budget and National Planning is reviewing that for us now in line with certain policy issues that they are developing to make sure that it is completely in line.
As regards how well we are doing on this continuum, I will say that various parts of the public service are at various stages along that continuum. As we talk today, we have aspects of the Public Service that are already world-class and, by those, I mean places like NAFDAC, FIRS, DMO, NDLEA and a number of others. This is not just my opinion; their ratings have been validated internationally by bodies like the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (which hailed the NDLEA as the most effective anti-narcotic agency in Africa).
A number of our agencies are already at the world-class level and others are at the transformation level. In addition, if you think about the efforts being put into the power sector, I don’t know if I should classify that as a transforming or rebuilding process, because it is not yet beginning to show the kind of results we would have liked at this stage of its existence. That aside, there are a number of agencies that are actually holding their own very well. Only recently, the Nigeria Communications Commission (NCC) won a European award for best practices, defeating 53 other countries in the process. We may not want to say the commission is world-class, given the number of dropped calls we have all had to endure and the usual Nigerian complaints about poor network, but they are as good as any other organisation in terms of how they work.
That said, the majority we are turning our attention to are the ministries. To tell you the truth, they are still not functioning optimally. While the president announced the merging and scrapping of certain ministries, the BPSR has been working with the Office of the Head of Service and the Office of the SGF to ensure that those ministries that have been merged work optimally. In such establishments, we carry out functional reviews to prevent departments from duplicating their activities. That has taken us a few months, because it is detailed technical work that affects sensitive aspects (people’s territories and jobs).
In all, the core civil service is still a challenge, because there are five areas that we need to focus on strictly, if we want to reposition our civil service. The first is the recruitment process. Allegations of irregular recruitments are still being made. People are recruited without a ‘manpower budget’ in place, allegations of secret recruitments and all that. The posting and deployment processes also need reformation, because at the moment, we hear allegations of people lobbying to go to certain places. There is no reason why we cannot have a system similar to that of the NYSC, where the posting is done centrally, in a computerised way, such that if you fit a certain profile – you are from such and such catchment area, you attended such and such school, therefore, you serve in so and so place. That system is fully designed and in place and the current Head of Service is determined to put it to use, so that the handling of the recruitment and posting of civil servants will not be handled by the ministries.
The third is that of promotion. Often, promotion is viewed as a right, depending on the number of years, when it should be, correctly viewed as a reward for good performance. We need to have a divorce between increases in salary and progression in career. There is no harm in increasing somebody’s salary based on the time they’ve spent and on inflation. In fact, based on the time they have spent, they can move up a few steps, but not everybody is fit to be a great director or deputy director. We cannot continue to create directorships just to promote people. Also, someone can be made a director, but may not head any department, because heading a department is a major managerial task. These are some of the things that we are working on.
Next is the issue of pay. We have this huge disparity in earnings of people in the same level, which has made it really difficult to justify. At the moment, if you work in the NCC, you could earn five times what someone in the Ministry of Communication earns, even if you do identical jobs. That is not right and it was based on the logic that those agencies that collect revenue should be able to pay themselves better but that logic doesn’t make any sense because if the two of us are doing an identical job and I’m collecting revenue, because the government says you must pay me better, am I doing an additional job? I’m not. So, we should have a pay policy that assesses the job done and makes payment based on that job.
Then, finally is the issue of succession, how people leave the service and are succeeded by others. We are trying to do something about that in the bureau. We know who is retiring in two years’ time and we begin to groom people to take over from them, so that we have a continuum. These are the five areas we are grappling with, in terms of reforming the mainline ministries. At this point, we are trying to make the picture clearer, due to the mix-ups from the whole reform of agencies arising from the Steve Oronsaye Report. Work is in progress and we expect that by the time the current government finishes its tenure in 2019, we will have a slimmer, more focused public service, be it a ministry or agency.
So far, you have entered into partnerships with a number of foreign bodies to bring about some reforms and sponsor them, independent of government. What indices have you used to measure the degree of progress and how have these partnerships aligned with your original goals to impact on performance?
This is one of the reasons the bureau is putting together an annual, rigorous plan which will guide what we do and help us distinguish where we are, where we want to go to and the resources we need to do so. Unfortunately, we are not well-funded as a bureau, so there is always a huge resource gap between what we need to do and what we have the resources to do. But then, seeing that our work is so vital to the development of the country, a number of donors have deemed it fit to provide us with support in some areas. No, they do not give us cash often; their support is usually in terms of technical assistance. We request consultants and they send them to us, taking care of their bills and all that. Occasionally, they help in the production of our documents.
In all, I have to say that we have been so fortunate that we actually had quite a high level of technical support from a number of donors. Often, they have been able to give us some of the best personnel in the world, given the complexity of the work we undertake, mindful of the fact that the expertise must remain within the bureau.
We have a very good relationship with the DFID, the World Bank (Nigeria) and one which we are trying to cultivate with the European Union, so that they can support the government reforms, of which the BPSR is the implementation agency. This is down to knowing what we want to do, where we want to go and the plan we have to implement. Donors simply back us up; none of our work is donor-driven. We tell them the areas in which we need support and they come in to help us. That is why all of our work is BPSR work and not that of any donor.
For the last two years, the lunch-time Reform Seminars have been ongoing. Why did you start the programme in the first place? What has it achieved and how do you explain the role of the bureau to other MDAs which are not really in tune with its primary responsibilities?
First of all, let me explain our role vis-a-vis the Lunch-time Seminars. Our roles include researching on good practices, what works and what doesn’t. After the rigorous research, we evaluate what works and what does not. For instance, we have evaluated all the reforms that have taken place from 1999 to 2014 to determine what is working now and what is not. Also, we have evaluated how Nigeria defeated Ebola, to see what we can learn from it to defeat other problems that have bedevilled us.
Finally, after the research and evaluation, we publish a document on how to manage and reform agencies and parastatals; basically, we teach people how to carry out these reforms. Also, we have a role to communicate these reforms and other government policies.
Frankly, often, even public servants are not aware of the reforms going on in government, unless they are in places where these reforms affect them. Yet, huge amounts of money have been spent on workshops, seminars and all sorts of things. Arguably, in most cases, the value of those workshops and seminars has been limited; so, we said to ourselves, ‘Okay, we will get the people driving these reforms to come and explain what they are doing to civil servants and how they are going about it, be it in public-private partnership (PPP), power or procurement’. At the same time, they are bombarded with questions to clarify some issues and know directly how their actions are coming across.
We are trying to give the public servants and the public the opportunity to challenge these reformers, providing suggestions and ideas. We squeeze all these into an hour, because the practice is that if you work eight hours, you should get an hour off for lunch. Rather than use time for work, we engage people during the lunch hour and serve them lunch within the hour. They take this away with them, together with the new things they have learnt. The feedback so far has been very positive. One of the lunch-time seminars we carried out on the Pensions Reforms Act featured as one of the questions in the promotion examination for permanent secretaries and only those who came for the seminar got the answer right. That is how important these seminars are.
Twice you have been recognised by the Independent Service Delivery Monitoring Group (ISDMG) as one of the government agencies that have been receptive to the public’s enquiries, as well as forthcoming on reforms. How does that make you feel? Also, if ever the bureau fulfils all its goals, what would that mean for the ordinary Nigerian?
Let me start with the second question. What that will mean for the ordinary Nigerian is fairly simple. You see, public services should be predictable and should just work. By ‘predictable’, I mean you should know that if you post a letter today, it will arrive at its destination tomorrow. You should know that if you apply for a license or for a job, there is a transparent and predictable process. That is very important, because arbitrariness takes over in the absence of order and when you have arbitrariness, you have corruption. If it is up to me to decide when your file comes out and whether you get it or not, then I’ll give myself a certain opportunity to come and be ‘seen’.
If, on the other hand, it is predictable that if you apply for pension today, a day after you finish as a civil servant or a public servant, you are moved into the pension system, there will be no room for corruption. It should just happen like that. If our public services are so predictable, you’d know that your refuse will be picked up on Wednesday between 10 am and noon and that it will be that way for the seven days of a week. Now, if we have a public system which works like this, for the ordinary Nigerian, it will mean less corruption, less impunity and more accountability in the system. Even the citizens will commend the public service. This is why we base our reforms on what difference it will make for the citizens. Gradually, we will begin to address the public’s perception that all public servants are corrupt, lazy and do nothing.
It is important that citizens get these services in a transparent and predictable way, without bribing any party, knowing or begging anyone. This is what public service should be. This way, if a mistake is made, we can be available to explain and apologise; we should not have this arrogance that comes with the perception that we are doing the public a favour.
In terms of the awards we have got, we are very humbled to be recognised as one of the best-run agencies in Nigeria, for two years in a row. I am particularly pleased with the award we got in 2015, which was given to us as a result of our speedy response to the freedom of information request. That is the kind of accountability we want to promote.
So, we were fortunate to win the prize of N500,000, which we in turn donated to the FCT School for the Blind. If, for example, we are asked what we did with ‘so-and-so’ amount of money which we received at ‘so-and-so’ time, we have made available the country’s first electronic freedom of information (FoI) portal where a citizen makes a request. The request goes to our phones immediately and in most cases, we have been able to respond within two minutes of getting an FOI request. In our case, you do not have to wait seven days. We have the information at hand and we can actually respond instantly.