By Dr Joe Abah
Whenever the public service is not working as well as it should, people often point to one overriding reason: lack of ‘political will.’ A bit like the term “restructuring”, Political will is a nebulous concept that means different things to different people. For many, it is the absence of clear commitment from the very top of government, often the President, to ensure that what should be done is done. However, I argue in this article that a clear intention, even from the number 1 citizen, that certain things should be done in certain ways, is often not enough.
Faced with the rising cost of governance, President Jonathan set up the Oronsaye Committee to look at ways to “rationalise” the number of agencies, parastatals and commissions that the federal government has.
The Committee had four main objectives in its terms of reference: provide a comprehensive listing of all agencies, parastatals and commissions; recommend which agencies should be scrapped; recommend the merger of agencies with duplicate functions, advice government on the agencies that should be commercially viable and which government should no longer make budgetary appropriations for; and make any other recommendations that will help to reduce the cost of governance. Apart from publishing a White Paper which rejected most of Oronsaye’s recommendations in 2014, not much was done by the Jonathan government on this. Not even implementing those recommendations that it had accepted
and gazetted in a 2014 White Paper.
Even before he took power in May 2015, President Buhari had, at various fora, highlighted the need to reduce the cost of governance by reducing the number of agencies and parastatals, in line with the recommendations of the Oronsaye report. He signified his intent in this direction by reducing the number of ministries from 31 to 24 in late 2015. The Oronsaye report submitted in 2012 had catalogued 541 agencies of the federal government. However, the Director-General of the Budget Office of the Federation announced in January 2019, that the 2019 Federal Budget had had to make provisions for more than 1,100 Federal Ministries, Departments and Agencies. So, a pertinent question to ask is: what happened to the “political will” to reduce the number of agencies, parastatals and commissions, both from the previous and current administration?
Assuming that the intentions of Presidents Jonathan and Buhari to reduce the cost of governance by reducing the number of agencies and parastatals were honest and genuine, it is clear that even ‘political will’ from the very top is only a necessary but insufficient condition for reforms. This is especially the case in a federal democracy where power is distributed to various power blocks. Most agencies and parastatals are set up by law. They cannot be scrapped or merged without the National Assembly. The National Assembly will often raise the emotive issue of potential job losses and not take forward any such proposals. Conversely, the National Assembly has a perverse incentive to create more and more agencies, with scant regard to their impact on the wage bill and the cost of governance. Every legislator wants to show that they have “attracted” development to their area. They will therefore sponsor bills that seek the creation of yet another “university of education”, even though there is already a federal university, state university, polytechnic and college of education in their constituency. It is clear, therefore, that ‘political will’, even by the President, is not enough to get any movement on this issue. Of course, things will be very different if we were in a military dictatorship. We are not and most informed Nigerians have no appetite to return to military rule.
There is, therefore, a need to better define what we really mean by ‘political will’ when it comes to driving public service reforms in a democracy. I submit that in a democracy where power is distributed across various bastions, real political will has four main components: a capacity to understand a problem; the presence of a critical mass of people across the arms and/or tiers of government willing to do something about it; the power, commitment, resilience and insulation from the status quo to be able to do something about it; and a clear approach supported by the critical mass for tackling the problem. Where these are lacking, political will, even by the President, is insufficient.
Although ‘political will’ is often made to sound as the panacea to every reform problem, it is one of the hardest things to get in a democracy with distributed power, using our criteria above. What then do we do? Do we wait for the occasional happy accident when circumstances may favourably align to produce the political will we need, or is there something else we can do about it?
I would argue that in our current system, the ‘technical will’ of public servants presents an equally viable, if not a more viable, alternative. As I said earlier, most agencies are set up by law, with powers enshrined in statutes. A rather surprising fact that I learnt when I was a Director-General in the federal government is that, quite often, nobody actually stops the technocrat from delivering on their legal mandate. The limitation on actions is often placed by the technocrat him or herself, based on what s/he perceive that their principal may or not want. In reality, any politician will jump on the bandwagon and take the credit when the technocrat is doing well. On the other hand, the head of a government organisation is appointed but not told what to deliver. Government often expects senior government officials to be sufficiently capable to use the laws setting up their organisations to deliver their mandate. When those laws are insufficient or are outdated, it is the responsibility of the chief executive to ask for more powers, first through the Federal Executive Council and then through the legislature.
I would argue that it is technical will, perhaps even more than political will, that drove the improvements in NAFDAC under Dora Akunyili, in the EFCC under Nuhu Ribadu and in the Federal Inland Revenue Service under Ifueko Omoigui-Okauru. It is technical will, perhaps more than political will, that is currently driving the improvements in the National Bureau of Statistics, the Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, the Office of the Auditor-General of the Federation, the National Centre for Disease Control and the Consumer Protection Council. It is certainly technical will, much more than political will, that drove the modest improvements that I was able to make as Director-General of the Bureau of Public Service Reforms.
In conclusion, political will is, of course, vitally important when driving reforms. It makes the life of the reformer a whole lot easier when it exists. Knowing that the reformer has support for their actions from the highest level of government insulates the reformer from distractions and unnecessary bottlenecks. However, in a federal democracy where power is distributed, true political will can be very difficult to get. Where it is lacking, as it very often is, the technical will of public sector chief executives can achieve a lot more than waiting for the happy accident of a convergence of political will, simply by making full use of their mandates and powers provided by law. They just need to conquer their own fears and choose legacy over thecomfort of anonymity.