Reforming our Dysfunctional Public Service

Nasir Ahmad El-Rufai

Public Service in Context

It is both a truism that no nation develops beyond the capacity of its public service, and there is broad consensus amongst Nigerians that our public service is broken and dysfunctional. The quality of public servants and the services they provide to our nation are both below expectations. From the glorious days at independence when the best and brightest graduates competed to join the administrative service up until 1970s, our public service is now seen as employer of the dull, the lazy and the venal. We need to retrieve our old public service - effective, well paid and largely meritocratic, attracting bright people imbibed with a spirit of promoting public good.

The Nigerian civil service evolved from the colonial service with its historical British roots of an independent, non-political and meritocratic administrative machinery for governing the country. Each region then had its civil service in addition to the federal service.

What is the public service? How did our public evolve from inception to excellence and now its current abysmal state of ineffectiveness? How can the public service be reformed, re-skilled and right-sized to provide the basic social services that will earn the trust of Nigerians and foreigners alike?

The Public Service - An Overview

The public service consists of the civil service - career staff whose appointment, promotion and discipline are under the exclusive control of the Federal Civil Service Commission (FCSC), national assembly service, the Judiciary, public officers in the military, police and paramilitary services, employees of parastatals, educational and health institutions. By September 2005, when the Public Service Reform Team (PSRT) was constituted, the number of federal public servants was slightly above one million. The estimated number working for the 36 states and the FCT was another 2 million, broken down as follows:

Federal Core Civil Servants, including some 2,000 directors 180,000

Uniformed Services - Military, Police and Paramilitary Services 457,000

Parastatals, Agencies, Educational and Health Institutions 470,000

Total Federal Public Service 1,107,000

Public Officers at the State Level - 36 States (Estimate) 856,000

Public Officers in the Federal Capital Territory Administration 19,000

Public Officers at the 774 Local Governments and 6 FCT Area Councils 620,000

Total Sub-National Public Service 1,495,000

TOTAL: Public Sector Employees in Nigeria 2,602,000

Adjusting for the increasing numbers of aides of the president, ministers, governors and legislators, it is not unreasonable to put the total number of those working directly for governments at about three million. So while our national population has increased by about 160% between 1960 and 1999, the size of our public service increased by 350% in the same period. Our public service is clearly over-bloated.

Other initial diagnostics and findings of the PSRT were sobering to say the least. The civil service was rapidly ageing, mostly untrained and largely under-educated. Their average age then was 42 years, and over 60% were over 40 years. Less than 12% of the public servants held university degrees or equivalent. Over 70% of the service were of the junior grades 01-06, of sub-clerical and equivalent skills. About 20% of the public service employees were 'ghost workers' - non-existent people on the payroll which goes to staff of personnel and accounts departments. In the FCT, out of an initial headcount of 26,000, we found 3,000 ghosts in the first round of audit. By the time we introduced biometric ID and centralized, computerized payroll, we found nearly 2,500 who failed to show up for documentation!

While the public service pay is low relative to the cost of living, the overall burden of payroll as a percentage of the budget is huge. In most states other than Lagos, Kano, Kaduna and Rivers States, an average of 50% of the budget goes towards the payment of salaries - to about 1% of their population - an unfair and unsustainable state of affairs! Out of the N2,425 billion included in the 2011 Budget for recurrent expenditure, between 73% and 84% for each MDA constitutes personnel cost. We found in 2005 that the breakdown of federal public service emoluments by class of service as follows:

Core Civil Service - 18%

Military, Police and Paramilitary - 35%

Parastatals, Education and Health - 47%

The PSRT inherited a federal public service whose central management organs - the FCSC and the office of the Head of Civil Service of the Federation had become inept and ineffective, and morally flexible at best. We learnt that appointments, promotion examinations, promotions, postings and discipline were bought and sold by civil servants the same way shares are traded on the stock market. Surprisingly and with some relief, we did not see these malfunctions in the armed services. The HR system of the Army, Navy and the Air Force were intact, and to some extent even the Police and other paramilitary services had better human resource management systems.

In a State of Denial?

The bulk of the public servants continue to be in denial and have refused to take responsibility for the sorry state of affairs, blaming their political masters for the dysfunction in the public service. They blame the collapse of merit and excellence in the public service on the Murtala-Obasanjo retirements "with immediate effect" that occurred in the mid-1970s. Others attribute the current situation to the Civil Service Reform Decree No. 43 of 1988 of the Babangida administration. The deterioration of pay and fringe benefits relative to the cost of living as a result of the Structural Adjustment Program in the late 1980s has also been identified as contributory to the de-motivation, deskilling and dispiriting of the public service.

The truth may be a combination of all three and more, compounded by the inability of the public service to update its attitudes, working methods, skills and technology. The public service has been short-term in its vision, self-centered in policy formulation and corrupt in programme implementation. Instead, it has focused on taking care of itself and interests to the detriment of the nation and system which sustains it. The public service failed to reform itself between 2001 and 2005 when two successive Heads of Civil Service were tasked to do so. It was therefore inevitable that driving the public service reforms of 2005-2007 had to be transferred to the economic team, with President Obasanjo leading the charge himself. An outsider was needed to administer the required medicine, but still needed the cooperation of the patient, which was not forthcoming.

Public Service Reforms in Perspective

It is therefore uncontestable that the public service became dysfunctional following years of neglect and failure to reform. The public service was both large and unwieldy, accountability was weak and professional standards low. The federal bureaucracy has also sprawled with considerable overlap of functions between agencies, and between tiers and arms of government. There was an urgent need for both civil service and parastatals reforms, and in spite of all efforts, little progress has been made in that regard.

The need to improve the overall efficiency and effectiveness of the public service have been recognized from pre-independence days by instituting several administrative reforms. The first of these was the Tudor Davis Commission of 1945-46. The Morgan Commission of 1963 not only revised salaries and wages of junior staff of the federal government but introduced for the first time a minimum wage for each region of the country. The more recent ones include the commissions headed by Simeon Adebo (1971), Jerome Udoji (1972), Dotun Philips (1986) and the Allison Ayida Panel (1995). The Dotun Philips reforms properly and correctly aligned the civil service structure with the constitution and presidential system of government , designating permanent secretaries as directors-general and deputy ministers. Unfortunately, the reforms devolved human resource functions with respect to junior cadres to ministries with disastrous consequences which needed dealing with.

The Bureau of Public Service Reforms (BPSR) was established in September 2003 as an independent agency in the Presidency to ensure the reform of all Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) of all arms and branches of the federal government, and submit quarterly reports to the President. The Public Service Reform Team (PSRT) had the BPSR as its secretariat and met weekly every Tuesday to deliver on its mandate. Some of the achievements of that round of reforms include:

1. Restructuring of Pilot Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs): The PSRT produced two generic guidelines approved by the Federal Executive Council (FEC) in March 2006 for the reform and restructuring of MDAs and Parastatals. Initially 5 pilot MDAs volunteered for restructuring and this was expanded to 14. This entailed cleaning up the staff headcount and payroll, and redesigning the MDA structure to have between 4 and 8 departments and 2-4 divisions per department. These were approved by the FEC on May 16th, 2007 and applicable to all MDAs immediately.

2. Cleaning up of Civil Service and Parastatals Nominal Rolls: The Oronsaye committee of the PSRT developed eight criteria for the retirement of public servants to enable the clean-up of the headcount and reducing the negative impact of the devolution of HR functions to MDAs in 1988, and the failures of the FCSC and OHCSF to discharge their functions. An appeals process was put in place to minimize victimization and errors.

For the civil service, about 45,000 names were prepared by MDAs and forwarded to BPSR for consideration and approval by PSRT, and then forwarded to the FCSC for removal. An initial batch of 36,843 officers were put through pre-retirement training, disengaged and paid about N24 billion as their severance entitlements. Unfortunately, about 20,000 of these severed civil servants have found their ways back into the civil service, thereby defeating the clean-up exercise.

For the 400 or so parastatals and paramilitary services, the estimated number of staff to be severed was 75,575 at a cost about N57 billion. Parastatals reform and right-sizing was to be undertaken jointly by BPSR and the Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE). Sadly, this was never fully realized.

3. Monetization of Fringe Benefits: All benefits-in-kind like free housing, furnishing, car and driver for various cadres of public servants and political office holders were abolished for ministers, permanent secretaries and equivalent cadres and below. All government-owned houses except 13 classes of official residences were sold to occupants or via public bids. All official vehicles were discounted by 50% and sold to officials. Other pool and utility vehicles were auctioned in public bids. Personal drivers, cooks and cleaners were laid off and made staff of the affected officials.

4. Pay Reform and Medium-Term Pay Policy: The Ernest Shonekan Pay Review Report was referred to PSRT for consideration and implementation. Shonekan found that public service pay was on average 25% of private sector for the same or similar jobs. A pay increase of 15% was therefore recommended and effected in January 2007, with a plan to increase pay by 10% per annum but linked to productivity such that in 5 years, near pay parity with the private sector will be achieved.

5. Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS): This is a computerized, biometric platform intended to provide a reliable and comprehensive database of employees in the public service to facilitate manpower planning, and eliminate headcount and payroll fraud. IPPIS approved by the FEC in February 2006 and implemented in phases. The first phase covering 6 MDAs and the central management organizations of the public service went live in April 2007, saving N416 million from the payroll of the 12 agencies in its first month! Sadly, the vested interests in the public service have frustrated its mainstreaming and application to cover all MDAs and other public service organizations since then.

6. Review and Update of Public Service Rules and Financial Regulations: The BPSR undertook a holistic review of the Public Service Rules and Financial Regulations and produced a White Paper which was amended and approved by the FEC on 9th May 2007.

Another review committee led by Adamu Fika lamented the low morale and widespread malaise in the service and observed that the integrity deficits in the FCSC and the Office of the Head of Civil Service of the Federation are responsible for inefficiencies and corruption that have become pervasive in the service.

Next Steps in Reforming the Public Service

This administration has a unique opportunity to correct these by appointing not only a reformist head of civil service, but the nomination of the chair and members of FCSC within the next few weeks with the mandate to clean up the service, and build on the reforms of 2005 to 2009.

The next steps are clear. Learn from recent past, build on foundations laid by PSRT and correct any errors we made. The quality of the public service must be improved by attracting the best and brightest. This requires reducing the current pay disparity between the public and private sectors of the economy. To rejuvenate the service, new blood must be injected at all levels from the academia, private sector and Nigerian Diaspora based on merit. These will be impossible unless the ageing and un-trainable public servants take early retirement.

Who can perform in today's work environment without the knowledge of IT, of using Google, Twitter and BlackBerry messaging tools? Any public servant that cannot use the computer and its various tools ought to give way to our army of young people that can. The number of MDAs duplicating functions, and their manning levels must be reviewed downwards to enable our nation afford the higher pay that our public servants deserve. We cannot maintain the same numbers we have and pay them any higher.

All these require careful thought, thorough collection and analysis of data, and political will. Our public service is once again at a cross-roads. It is up to the President to make the choices necessary to make it better, or much worse.


Nasir Ahmad El-Rufai, OFR was Senior Policy Adviser to General Abdulsalami Abubakar (1998-99), Director-General of the Bureau of Public Enterprises (1999-2003), Minister of the Federal Capital Territory, Member of the Economic Team, (2003-2007) and Chairman of the Public Service Reform Team (2005-2007).