The Civil Service in an Age of Open Government, By Tunji Olaopa

Since the 80s, and on a massive global scale that was motivated by the democratic awakening, the civil service finally has come to the awareness of the need to transcend its bureaucratic culture that gives it a bad name.

The unsalutary reputation which the bureaucracy acquired over the long years of its evolution all around the world, and transformation was, ironically, a far cry from the philosophical insights that motivated the beginning of the civil service as the guardian of the public interest.

In Plato’s Republic, those put in charge of ruling and running the affairs of the state—the public servants, properly so called—were selected through a thorough educational policy. This thoroughness, I dare say, is not a far cry from the Levitical Order that assisted the Old Testament priesthood in the administration of laws and moral precepts.

It is no wonder therefore that Max Weber, one of the greatest of the theorists of public administration, considered the bureaucracy as a vocation that defines a unique administrative persona with a set of characteristics and mentalities. As a vocation, the bureaucracy became integrated within a specific ethical framework that is further attached to a larger vision beyond itself. The bureaucrat is called, in other words, to serve the state and the vision of good governance, with utter loyalty and complete dedication.

When the bureaucracy however tasted power, as it must, since governmental power is delegated through officialdom, it became a power unto itself such that as politics degenerates, its original raison d’être got corrupted in equal measure. Bureaucrats, who were guardians of the governance codes of values in practice, stopped living ‘for’ politics and became utterly instrumental by living ‘from’ politics. Honour and sacrifice, which were intrinsic attributes of service, became lost to short term political gratification. When Lawrence Lowell, the American political scientist, remarked that ‘Anyone who sees in his own occupation merely a means of earning money degrades it; but he that sees in it a service to mankind ennobles both his labor and himself,’ he was highlighting the eventual degeneration and decline of the civil service that had lost spirituality and the essence of service.

We can therefore ask: What is it about the bureaucratic system that makes it so powerful as to threaten its very own essence as well as the service it is supposed to carry out on behalf of government? Two answers immediately surfaces: first, the bureaucracy is the locus of governmental power; and second, the bureaucracy functions through the coordination of complex activities that enables it to retain that delegated power and use it as it deems fit. Edmund Burke could have had the bureaucracy in mind when he wrote that ‘the greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse.’

By becoming a power unto itself, the bureaucracy became what was said of Whitehall, the British civil service: ‘a great rock in the tide line.’ This was because it had undergone many reforms without essentially changing. Thus, Hennessy remarks about the British civil service: ‘the history of Whitehall is a story of long periods of routine punctuated by occasional orgies of reform.’ The bureaucracy has arrived at Douglas McGregor’s Theory X; the ‘I am directed’ administrative mentality that inevitably created incurable bureau-pathologies in the civil service. This little but significant example leads us to the conclusion that in its evolution, the bureaucracy eventually arrives at a point when it collapses upon itself—except that collapse is help up by a sheer exercise of institutional self-will. This decline of the civil service and its ethos and professionalism is also best illustrated by the unfortunate decline, in the 70s, of the Nigerian civil service.

Beyond the popular narrative which rightly locates the decline of the Nigerian civil service in the mass purge of the mid-70s, in a seminar sense, the seed of the decay had in fact matured before 1975, and the duo of Adebo (1971) and Udoji (1974) discerned it and warned. Indeed, the Nigerian civil service that came into existence in 1954 has had a fascinating and interesting reform history. It is however unfortunate that these reforms have been directed more towards damage control rather than a positive reappraisal of the original objective of the civil service as an institution. The reason for this damage control reforms is that the Nigerian civil service has not been fully formed; it has failed to successfully navigate the normal prescribed five-stage lifecycle in organisation development (OD) theory. In other words, our historical attempts to enact the birth-adolescence-maturity-institutionalisation-reformulation growth sequence have been characterised by series of disruptions, false starts, hiccups, misinterpretations, administrative misses and fortuitous breakthrough that make it very difficult for the system to achieve a critical rethinking and reconsideration of its base fundamentals.

The likes of Chief Simeon Adebo, Chief Jerome Udoji and Sule Katagum were grounded in the original bureaucratic public service ethos that Nigeria inherited from the British colonialists. However, they unfortunately could not prevent the encroaching administrative dysfunction that engulfed the Nigerian civil service after independence. This bureau-pathological development was characterised by (a) blind conformance; the tendency to want to follow rules and regulations for its own sake even where discretion dictates otherwise; (b) An emphasis on procedures with scant regard for measuring results or the impact of policy and programme; (c) Subversion of meritocracy that sometimes allows promotions based on subjective criteria and invariably disallow the most competent from getting to the top; (d) A culture of risk aversion that generally circumscribe innovation and creativity; and (e) Closure of entries from other professions and the resultant genetic inbreeding.

Kolind explains what he called the bureaucracy’s ‘first cycle’ as the function of the interaction of three factors: size (or, invariably, over-bloatedness of the civil service which in Nigeria set in with oil boom and state creation), age (or, the encroachment of administrative tradition that stifles innovation and sustains the ‘wait-for-your-turn-syndrome), and success (which encourages complacence and slow adoption of new ideas and technology).

The commencement of the democratic waves of the 90s decreed that the dysfunctional bureaucracy confront a modernising imperative. This imperative demands that one redirects the civil service away from its crippling bureaucratic culture towards a more democratic and entrepreneurial and technocratic organisation with the capacity to deliver national goals.

The best way to do this, using Kolind’s lifecycle metaphor, is to facilitate the transition to a ‘second cycle’ which requires attaching the dynamite of innovation to the ‘great rock in the tide line’ in order to give it the necessary push to perform. The modernising imperative therefore serves two significant purposes: first, to regain the vocational import of public service, and second, to prepare the bureaucracy for modern challenges. The question then is: How does a bureaucratic administrative civil service structure respond to the challenge of modernisation? The first condition for modernisation is to target the loci of the governance or the centre of public administration.

Public administration as governance derives from the recent transformation of the economy and government of industrial societies that has led to (a) a radical change in the internal modes of functioning; and (b) the expansion of governmental activities into a ‘governance network’ that brings in non-state actors into the governance system. The second condition demanded by the modernising imperative is the urgency of opening up the government within the framework of an ‘open society’.

Both conditions are interrelated because governance requires the participation of non-state actors and the entire citizenry through a technologically-motivated open platform that facilitates transparency, collaboration and participation. The open society or open government paradigm has philosophical antecedent. Immediately after the horrors of the Second World War, the Austrian philosopher, Karl Popper, wrote a classic: Open Society and Its Enemies (1945).

The open society and open government dynamics speak to the need for eternal vigilance of the human race that guides their freedom and creativity to foreclose the multiplication of the Hitlers of this world and specifically, those that Popper regarded as Totalitarian ideologues namely, Hegel, Marx and Plato. And, the urgent and constant need to innovate and recreate ideas, paradigms and institutions in a way that transform our individual and collective wellbeing. The recent uproars generated by the Arab Spring in the Middle East constitute a negative indication of a refusal to open up the government or the society to constant interrogation.

In administrative reform terms, the ‘open society’ imagery simply challenges our civil services into a persistent and creative rethinking of our institutional and structural dynamics in a manner that transform the system into a world class performance mode. It insists that the principle that government—not just its laws and policies, but the reasons and processes of decisions that generated those policies and the flows of money that fund their implementation—should be open.

Open government gives the civil service clear advantages: (a) First, it is a critical attempt to challenge administrative closure that locks the people out of decisions and processes that governs their lives; (b) Second, open government deals with bureau-pathology by reversing the obscurity of brilliant public servants whose creative initiatives are usually left to disappear within the vast hierarchies that define the bureaucracy; (c) Third, open government helps the government redirect its citizens’ trust and respect; and (d) Lastly, the open government initiative enables the civil service to transcend itself away from its acute analogue/hierarchical/opaque status to becoming a cutting-edge digital/network/open system that works.

The governance and open government reform demand a reassessment of administrative reality especially within a third world context like Nigeria where our postcolonial predicament has left us burdened and in anguish. However, our reassessment goes deeper than opening up the processes and functioning of government. Gary Francione, the American philosopher, counsels that ‘If we are ever going to see a paradigm shift, we have to be clear about how we want the present paradigm to shift.’ The open government initiative is just one indication of where we want to go. Other indication of needed transformation will necessarily include:

o   From resource-based to competency-based HRM;

o   From ‘input-process’ to ‘output-results’ orientation;

o   From Weberianism to a new institutional philosophy tantalisingly typified by the assumptions of neo-Weberianism;

o   From rules-compliance to a value-based PS rooted in spirituality-underpinned professionalism;

o   The need for a Nigerian Public Service Charter that leverages the African Public Service Charter as the basis for a governance-aware civil service.

What will constitute the difference between the performance stature of our civil service system now and of the future will depend on our capacity to modernise; our capacity, that is, to sustain the degree to which we can achieve the transition from Civil Service 1.0 to a fully digitised Civil Service 2.0. It is that transition that constitutes the bulk of our challenge for the simple reason that the system has remained enmeshed in the crippling bureaucratic culture too long. The civil service is a vocation that we urgently need to reinvent.

Dr.Tunji Olaopa, a Permanent Secretary in the Federal Ministry of Communication Technology, read this excerpted remarks as guest speaker at the 2014 Lagos State Public Service Lecture on Monday, 23rd of June, 2014. Please give him feedback via tunji.olaopa@commtech.gov.ng


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