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Lessons on sustainable systems: Nigerian public sectors versus private institutions

Lessons on sustainable systems: Nigerian public sectors versus private institutions

By Ifenla Oligbinde

One peculiarity about Nigerian leadership in public spaces is that we build and invest in people but not in structures. Our investment in people in this sense is only to the extent to which they can be useful for political or business reasons. But when it comes to laying frameworks or roadmaps for institutions, we keep making the same mistakes while expecting different results. People go to great lengths to get federal or state appointments in the public and civil spaces, but when it comes to delivering on the job, everyone looks the other way.

Read also: Improving productivity in Nigeria’s public sector through public-private partnerships

Private organisations are not just profit-oriented; they are service, product, and delivery-oriented. Their systems and processes are built around their customers and clients, who are at the centre of their service delivery processes, which improves their accessibility, responsiveness, and overall satisfaction.

Nigerians have already gotten used to the unhealthy cultures in the public sector, and anything or anyone that tries to deviate from that myopic way leads to witch-hunting at different levels. From bureaucratic red tapes to shades of inefficiencies and underutilised staff, among other challenges, the public sector in Nigeria has become elitist tools for certain classes in the polity. While this is the case in terms of leadership and those who make decisions in these institutions, the workers, on the other hand, are not far off from their one-way culture. To deviate from this tradition is to personally sponsor oneself on a suicide mission or a one-way trip. Either the staff frustrates the efforts of the “unfortunate” innovator who radically seeks to devise smart ways of effective outcomes, or such a person becomes bored with other people’s tasks.

Simplified bureaucratic processes and reduced red tape would improve public institutions’ delivery and responsiveness. Technology, to a large extent, would make things easier for the employees. To date, there are several government agencies, ministries, commissions, and parastatals that are not tech-inclined. The manual and analog ways of doing things are still being shamefully embraced.

If public sectors take leadership and governance cues from private industries, they will certainly improve in their operations and outcomes. The latter have firm, dependable, and strong leadership structures, clear accountability mechanisms, and performance-driven cultures. On this learning, the former will benefit from implementing similar governance frameworks and sustainable practices that outlive decision-makers to ultimately promote transparency and hold leaders accountable. In other words, irrespective of the government in power, already-laid systems and processes would be expected to be carried out by staff, who would also be expected to transfer these learning outcomes to new staff.

Transparency and accountability are nearly impossible feats in the public sector. Deep-rooted issues such as corruption, a lack of enforcement mechanisms, and weak regulatory frameworks pose significant challenges to achieving transparency and accountability. Corruption and mismanagement are constant issues within the public sector in Nigeria, leading to the misallocation of resources, embezzlement of funds, and erosion or diversion of public trust. It doesn’t mean that the private sector does not have its fair share of mismanagement, but the public sector always takes the lead.

Service delivery is a major concern for every Nigerian who has to deal with the public sector. The mere thought of delay and bottleneck restraints people face on a daily basis is enough to give anyone high blood pressure, not to mention the intentional and audacious refusal to carry out simple tasks just because the person in charge needs to be “motivated” to get a file to a department or retrieve the same. Ironically, the citizens are not left out in this culture; a typical Nigerian would immediately seek to use their influence if they faced the slightest delay, no matter how consequential and valid such restraint is. Ultimately, everyone is in the long race for “strongest connection” or “weightiest network.”

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The work system in the private sector is quite dynamic; everyone knows that, apart from their daily, weekly, monthly, or quarterly reports, the human resources structure has set indicators with which they track employees’ performances. A new employee in a private space would need a couple of weeks or months to fully map the culture of such an environment with regards to monitoring and evaluation, while a new staff member in a public setting typically needs a day to see all things that should be possible wrong in that institution. If the latter’s supervisor doesn’t resume at 10 or noon, he is witnessing someone either humorously asking to be paid to get a job done or flagrantly refusing to jump at a task. Private sectors measure employees’ progress through probationary tactics, while employees in public sectors measure their superiors by the time they resume or leave work (2 p.m. in places like Abuja) or the amount they “earn” on the job by day.

Disgruntled clients or customers in a private business’ service know where and how to address their issues. Public spaces need to be intentional in privatising citizen needs by gathering feedback and tailoring their services to meet their expectations. When this is done right, they could then introduce performance-based incentives and rewards for employees to encourage innovation, productivity, and excellence while also recognising top performers. Working in the public sector is even seen as a last resort for most graduates, and this isn’t unconnected to factors such as limited career advancement opportunities, low salaries, and a lack of merit-based recruitment processes. This results in a skills gap and hampers the effectiveness of public sector institutions. If the leadership devises means of rewarding deserving staff through fully funded personal and professional development schemes in the country or abroad, people’s attitudes towards work will certainly change.

Addressing these close-knit problems demands strategic reforms and public restructuring, as well as proper monitoring and evaluation to be conducted by relevant institutions. Public-private partnership (PPP) is an outstanding initiative that can facilitate knowledge sharing, technology transfer, and joint problem-solving efforts to drive sustainable development and improve the public sector. If the private sector can regularly collaborate with external actors and stakeholders, including other businesses, NGOs, and government agencies, to achieve common goals, the Nigerian public sector should be able to leverage partnerships and collaboration to access expertise, resources, and innovative solutions to address complex challenges. Only through intentional and well-developed efforts to address these challenges can the public sector effectively operate within the same instances as their private sector counterparts and deliver optimal outcomes for the citizens that they are supposed to serve.

 

Ifenla Oligbinde is a Nigerian lawyer, writer, inclusion advocate, and politician with over 10 years of experience in project management and community development. She was the first and only Nigeria selected for the McCain Global Leaders program in 2023, and one of 700 African Leaders for the 2023 Mandela Washington Fellowship, to study Leadership in Public Management track at the Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.