Towards reforming Nigeria’s Civil Service, by Adémólá Òrúnbon

It is the tradition that whenever a new government whether autocratic or democratic is formed, they come along with their agenda, policies and programmes. As the most vital machinery of government, it is the responsibility of the Civil Service to drive the implementation of these policies and programmes because; a committed civil service is the best vehicle for carrying out and explaining to the people the policies and intentions of government.

According to Warren Fisher in his report of the British Royal Commission on the civil service in 1929: “Determination of policy is the function of Ministers; and once a policy is determined, it is unquestioned and unquestionable business of the civil servant to strive to carry out that policy with precisely the same good will, whether he agrees with it or not”.

In other words, the basic roles of civil service and civil servant are to assist the government in the formulation of policy by providing the necessary data, implement the decisions (that is, the approved policies) without fear or favour, and ensure that when advising government the civil servant sets out the wider and more enduring considerations against the exigencies of the moment so that the conveniences of today do not become the embarrassment of tomorrow.

According to several historians, the first true bureaucracies arose in response to the need to regulate water in the great river valleys, particularly those of the Nile, the Tigris and Euphrates, the Indus and the Yellow River. If these water sources supplied the lifeblood of the civilisations they nurtured, those who monitored their flow and supervised their distribution into complex irrigation systems constituted the lifeblood of government. In the millennia that have since passed, this characteristic has remained as the functions of government have multiplied.

Governments themselves have changed and evolved new forms of organisation, management and supervision, motivation and remuneration, some functional in terms of serving the needs of their peoples, some catastrophic in their inefficiency, greed, or oppression. Over the last fourteen years or thereabout, I have had the opportunity of studying the Nigerian Civil Service at close quarters and reflecting on its critical role in national development. It is apt to conclude that the service as presently constituted possesses neither the capacity nor readiness to be in the frontline of government service delivery to the public.

It is on record that the performance of the Civil Service in its policy and technical support to government and the delivery of service to the public in the period from the colonial era up to the mid 1970s, was of high standard, even by international comparison. The high rating in both effectiveness and efficiency was at both the Federal and Regional/State levels. From the mid-1970s, however, the performance of the service began to deteriorate progressively and this dismal performance has since peaked at a scandalous level. Some of the critical factors responsible for this debilitating state of affairs include the absence of key modern competences and skilled human capital resources.

For government policies and national development strategies to have any impact, the Nigerian civil service needs to be subjected to significant root and branch reform that is revolutionary in nature as against successive reforms of the past that were no more than addressing the symptoms rather than the cause. The Nigerian civil service as the leading government bureaucracy that makes conducting private business difficult needs innovatory and ground-breaking makeover that will lead to a more effective and productive public sector that will support the private sector led economic transformation strategy.

Social justice demands that we at all times make the correlation between superior living standards and quality of life, and the need for a more effective and more productive civil service. However, a strong civil service does not in any way imply a bulky civil service, just like a strong Armed Forces does not mean a huge Armed Forces. A strong civil service is one that is efficient, forward-looking and seeks to excel. Such a service has an organizational culture that is responsible, innovative and service-oriented.

Without a strong and forward-looking civil service, the private sector will be unable to achieve its own potential. A strong civil service is an unconditional prerequisite for a strong academia, a superb educational system and regulatory and structural reforms in different market sectors.

The social justice protests that have and are still taking place intermittently across the country are a golden opportunity to harness the rage, frustration and disappointment of many Nigerians to change the public dialogue and create a new system of social trust and values. It is a chance for the public to demand that the government make the civil service/public sector more efficient and to shift focus of public servants toward serving their clients, the tax-paying public. It is also a chance for Nigerians to demand that the service cleans its Augean stable and do away with the grand corruption of its Resident Consultant and its pension thieves.

Òrúnbon, a journalist, poet, and public affairs analyst, wrote in from Epe, Lagos State, Nigeria.

He can be reached via:, 08034493944 or 08029301122.

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