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Published On: Tue, Jun 24th, 2014

The civil service in an age of open government

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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 un-salutary 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.

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 demands 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: From resource-based to competency-based HRM; from ‘input-process’ to ‘output-results’ orientation; Weberianism to a new institutional philosophy tantalisingly typified by the assumptions of neo-Weberianism; rules-compliance to a value-based PS rooted in spirituality-underpinned professionalism; and 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 is a Permanent Secretary in the Federal Ministry of Communication Technology (tunji.olaopa@commtech.gov.ng)

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