An effective institution is one that can be assessed on a scale of performance that allows such an institution to increase the quality of life of citizens

Tunji Olaopa

Let me state my thesis from the start: the end point of all institutional and administrative reforms is the establishment of effective and efficient public institutions with the capacity readiness to facilitate optimal service delivery to the citizens. This is a precondition for democratic governance without which an elected government had simply made promises at election which significance it may not have fully understood. This stark reality therefore puts a huge burden on all states, democratic and non-democratic alike to constantly work on the reform of their public institutions to make them reference point for an efficient democratic government. Democracies all over the world are denominated by a public service whose function is to efficiently translate government policies into implementable dividends in terms of infrastructural development that the people can relate with. Indeed, if we are to take the new discourse of institutions and institutionalism to heart, institutions define the very essence of the difference between poverty and prosperity.

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This is the stimulating thesis that undergirds Acemoglu and Robinson’s successful 2013 book, Why Nations Fail. According to them, existing explanations on why some nations are wealthy while some are languishing in poverty can no longer be founded on culture, geography or even on leadership ignorance about the right policies. On the contrary, the real issue lies in the kind of politics a nation plays and the type of institutions that emerge from the political games of nations. It is this type of politics that therefore create the difference between inclusive democratic institutions and extractive authoritarian institutions. Thus, Euro-America is wealthy while the third world is impoverished because while the leadership of the latter is driven by greed, rent seeking, nepotism, etc. encapsulated in their extractive politics, the leadership of the former is denoted by a set of inclusive institutions that allows for democratic participation. An effective institution is one that can be assessed on a scale of performance that allows such an institution—agencies, ministries, departments and other organisational entities that make up the government at the local, state and federal levels—to increase the quality of life of the citizens through its capacity to deliver on the goals and objectives of government.

The locus of reform for institutional effectiveness is therefore the public service. The public service system inherited by Nigeria after independence was, until 1966, adjudged one of the best in the Commonwealth of Nations. This was because it was founded upon the value-based old Weberian bureaucratic tradition of efficiency and performance that enabled the colonialists to translate their pernicious policies into effective delivery of stated objectives. It also initially allowed the postcolonial Nigerian government to get some things done in terms of managing a nascent plural state just learning to cope with its postcolonial realities. However, things soon began to fall apart. And one good reason for this is the entry of the military and the injection of its command structure into politics. It was a downward spiral from then on. Two immediate consequences emanated from this. The first is that it soon became glaring to Nigerians that the government, despite its initial desire to assume the commanding height of the economy, could no longer get the development train moving in the right direction.

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Since the Nigerian Civil War ended, institutions have gradually lost their capacity to deliver on anything. And this is very sad because that has persisted even until the commencement of the democratic dispensation in 1999. The second consequence of the failure of government is the emergence of non-governmental, non-state, private organizations who have displaced the state in the business of governance. A pretty good example lies in the educational sector with the proliferation of private educational institutions at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels.

We definitely may not be justified to think that the institutional story has been all gloom since independence. There have been landmark policy initiatives over the years that have transformed certain aspect of the Nigerian polity. However, the effectiveness of these successful policies has been undermined by the pervasive presence of stunted, failed, abandoned and epileptic policies. This translates, unfortunately for Nigerians, into an understanding of state failure in terms of crippled infrastructures—galloping crime rate as a result of security collapse, pandemic poverty, palpable corruption, roads that are death traps, healthcare facilities that are comatose and give free reins to sicknesses and diseases, unedifying educational sectors, and so on.

The duty of governments everywhere is to create structures that address specific challenges and problems. Once created, these institutions justify their continued existence by developing consistent and effective operating system, modus operandi, expertise and competences to administer effective solutions to complex problems and challenges in a manner that would be strongly valued by internal stakeholders (policy makers, politicians, et al) and external stakeholders, and that generates trust and support. The capacity of public institutions to generate exceptional returns is then dependent on several factors. Three are particularly significant here: (a) the kind of politics that the nation plays and the type of institutions that emerge in the cauldron of that game; (b) the decision-making quotient of the political and bureaucratic leadership to deliver on their problem-solving responsibility, and (c) government’s capacity to attract, retain and develop the right workforce. In the Nigerian context, the focus of public service effectiveness is the ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs), and we need no empirical metrics to know that the MDAs are not performing to optimality. The answer to the next question of why this is so can only be a multicausal analysis that factors historical, administrative and political analysis into one unfortunate package of institutional ineffectiveness.

Behind the present configuration of the public service in Nigeria is a historical understanding of the inherited public service institution whose operating system was far from being citizen-friendly. In other words, it was essentially an extractive set of structures that was not oriented towards democratization, democratic service delivery, contractual relationship. One particular operational example will suffice. The inherited public service was founded on the functional efficiency of the General Orders and the Circulars, which serve as the public service rule and operational framework. This framework however constituted a business model that is meant to apply across the different sectors and departments of the public service, from budgeting to personnel administration and planning. This one-size-fits-all model were only meant to regulate personnel behavior and prevent fraud rather than enhancing effective administrative operations, rendering it most appropriate only in managing the input-process side of policy and programmes, but ineffective in managing the output-outcome side.

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