Issues in navigating the policy space in Nigeria

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All across the world, the policy space has always been a critical and contested one. It is critical to the extent that it is within this space that the government consolidates the social contract with the citizens through sound programmes that inform the development of the state and the well-being of the citizens. It is contested because it is a space where the government no longer has the sole prerogative of determining what should constitute the specifics of governance dynamics. The policy space is traditionally reserved for bureaucrats and bureaucratic expertise. It is the public servants whose original task it is to assist the government in policy design and implementation. By the turn of the twentieth century, especially when the second World War happened, with all its attendant administrative, political and social consequences, this reality started to change.

With the emergence of the United Nations after the war, the foreign policy relationships and dynamics amongst nations became all the more significant. The UN became a structural standpoint to prevent further war. And thus, this led to the need for multilateral cum bilateral agreements and global partnerships that will facilitate the cordial relationship and collaborations between NGOs and development partners with states across the world. This brings these global partners into the policy management architecture of the states. It is however the United States’ policy management experience during and after the war that signalled the widening of the policy space beyond the remit of traditional policy imperatives. America facilitated the inclusion of scholars and intellectuals, as well as the introduction of think tanks, into the policy space. This is further accentuated by the US spoils system. This practice within the context of the US presidential system is a double-edged sword. It has the potential to both muddle the policy management space as well as strengthen it. It began as a means of allocating juicy appointments and positions to loyal party members when a president gets to power. And it eventually led to gross inefficiency until the Pendleton Federal Civil Service Act of 1883 put a stop to it. However, it still provides a solid administrative frame for injecting fresh technocratic and expert presence into the policy space.

Even though it is customary, all through public administration history, to enlist scarce skills and core expertise to bridge knowledge, information and competency gaps at different stages of the policy process, there has always been a charged relationship between the bureaucrats as the gatekeepers of the space and the technocrats and experts that are meant to complement their policy efforts. The relationship between the public servants and bureaucrats on the one hand, and the technocratic team (technical advisers, policy experts, consultants and subject specialists) on the other has been governed by the tension between two fundamental issues. On one hand, there is the need to keep all policy processes and actions within the purview of technical rationalism. This is what activates the totality of the administrative governing framework, from the famous General Order to the public service rules, circulars and other legal and administrative procedures, guidelines and instruments by which the policy management processes are streamlined. However, there is also the pervasive pressure to subject bureaucrats to a general accountability control in accordance with the imperatives and demands of democratic principles and governance.

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But the bureaucracy is just what it is—a turf that is guided with all sense of propriety and aggression. It is a space where the task of policy management is jealously guided from intrusion by perceived outsiders. This raises a genuine dilemma: the policy space can no longer be policed solely by the bureaucrats whose policy actions must be complemented by non-bureaucrats. And yet the bureaucratic policy space is professionally unique and cannot be arrogantly transgressed by those who think they have better expertise. This makes the policy space a charged one. Like the larger governance space, the task of governance can no longer be left to the expertise of the bureaucrats and government officials alone. The demands of democratic governance insist that nonstate and non-governmental actors be drawn in to contribute their own perception, thoughts and expertise to the task of governing the citizenry better than the government alone is ever going to manage.

When managerialism made its appearance from the 1960s, the pressure to modernise policy and make it more efficient redoubled the urgent need for reforming the policy space and forcing the bureaucrats to comply. The managerial revolution was motivated by the need to transform the operational dynamics of the traditional administrative framework in line with modern technologies and administrative machineries, especially as determined by the private sector and its efficiency, capacities and competences. Managerialism asks for effectiveness, flexibility, leanness, efficiency, performance and productivity. And it compelled a lot of attention on the insularity of the public service in relation with the imperatives of the larger governance and policy space. With managerialism, the policy management space can no longer be the same. Thus, as a dominant paradigm in public administration, and with its emphasis on upending action and policy research, entrepreneurial culture, it contributed to the need for expanding the policy and governance space and deepening the relevance of technocratic expertsand professionals from outside of the bureaucracy.

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Within the Nigerian policy space, it is the managerial imperative of enlarging the space, coupled with the fundamental development predicament of the Nigerian state after colonialism, that facilitated the entry into policy management of such experts, scholars and technocrats such as Pius Okigbo, Wolfgang Stolper, Ojetunji Aboyade, Taslim Elias, Adamu Baike, Ben Nwabueze, Jibril Aminu, Claude Ake, Kalu Idika Kalu, and many others who brought skills and competences into the policy processes. And yet, the governance and policy space in Nigeria demonstrates most tragically the charged nature of the relationship between the bureaucrats and the technocrats. Indeed, the diagnostic literature in Nigeria’s administrative history regards the civil service as a significant part of the development challenge Nigeria is facing. Apart from its institutional reform issue and the need to inject critical meritocratic competence, the civil service has a reputation for being too closed up. Technocrats, professionals and experts over the years have lamented the challenge of working closely with bureaucrats on policy issues.

One critical nature of the Nigerian state and its governance dynamics has to do with the ease with which the system rewards mediocrity. Even as the bureaucracy harbours significant high-end talents, often times, mediocre, rather than the brightest and the best, find themselves at the top of the administrative and technocratic ladders where they are served by the best the Nigerian nation can afford, from the university scholars and intellectuals to top-notch professionals. Unfortunately, this technocratic best that could serve the nation are forced to look up to their mediocre bosses, especially with regard to issues and policies that shape the direction and performance metrics of the structures and institutions they oversee. And who would want to blame those who had to keep their distance from the policy space when they cannot continue to bear the brunt of mediocrity in a nation with huge demographics of core professionals and experts of global standing? How does a nation like Nigeria that wants to be a global economic player in 21st century account for countless first-class graduates languishing in the unemployment market? And the agony doubles because the university teachers who are tasked with the responsibility of forming the human capital Nigeria requires to become a developmental state have been effectively pauperised.

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Quite unfortunately, and despite the best reform intentions and efforts of successive Nigerian government and bureaucratic leadership, Nigeria’s administrative system still operates a one-size-fits-all code of administrative operations usually activated by circulars and a whole range of governance codes which civil servants are experts in. This is so because many of the key reforms since 1974 have not gained ground or are far-between. Many of these standard operating systems are sadly not embedded by new and efficient management innovation, procedures and technologies at the rapidly growing frontiers of policy and project management techniques. They therefore tend to be annoyingly rigid, unimaginative and even stifling of any innovative possibilities. This procedural matter is further compounded by the civil service structure of authority, which embeds positions and persons in manners that could be dysfunctional especially where occupants of posts do not have the skills, knowledge and competence that performance and productivity require. This dynamic is aggravated by the weight that the civil service put on seniority and hierarchy at the expense of knowledge, competence, administrative discretion and team work. It is therefore no surprise that the entire system, outside of the best objectives of managerialism, is heavily oriented towards input and process at the expense of output and results.

Thus, within this context of dysfunctionality and professional/technocratic arrogance and ignorance, the stage is set for collaborative conflict founded on an adversarial model that preclude any form of agreement between the bureaucrats and the technocrats on the resolution of the problems of policy management. It is this conflict-ridden model, rather than the collaborative one that facilitate consensus and mutual respect, that had led to the humiliation of many well-meaning and patriotic cross-over professionals and technocrats who had made the bold move to serve the Nigerian state and make better and functional the policy and governance space for the betterment of Nigerians.

I suspect—if these technocrats are invited again to national service, they just might overlook the wrongs done to them. Patriotism seems to cover a multitude of sins.

  • Olaopa is a professor of Public Administration at the NIPPS, Kuru, Jos, Plateau State

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