Public service is a vocation. It is a call to rise above the self and serve the public. This public service ethos is often not understood or is at best taken for granted. This is especially so in a situation where the primary goal is to extract as much personal gains as possible from the proverbial national cake.
Abuja, as the seat of government and the city of public service in Nigeria, is a metaphor for this misunderstanding of the public service ethos, which is not restricted to Abuja but could be found in all tiers of government in Nigeria.
Those who misunderstand the public service ethos are mostly interested in scheming for possessions, positions, power, and properties. For them, fear of these 4Ps is the beginning of wisdom. Unfortunately, this type of wisdom is not necessarily good for any country – especially one with weak institutions and multitude of developmental challenges. It mainly elevates the self above the collective, and prioritises private gains over public interests. It is not difficult to appreciate why things are the way they are in Nigeria. The triumph of personal interests over the collective, which is grossly antithetical to the public service ethos, is a collective tragedy.
Despite this gory picture of the public sector, there are still some exceptions to the practice. These are quintessentially outliers and, therefore, abnormal in a system characterised by selfishness and profiteering. Surprisingly, they survive the negative pressures of the system to flow with the tide, live above board, and are largely fulfilled. The critical question then is how do they maintain their sanity in the midst of insanity? How do they survive the onslaught of conformity and successfully swim against the tide? The answer is not farfetched; from experience, they are usually D.E.A.D!
They are D.E.A.D in the sense that: 1) they are Driven by purpose and principles, 2) they Expect nothing from anyone, 3) they Allow others to be and 4) they are Detached. These are apt survival strategies in a system where it is very hard to be different.
It is very easy to lose focus in public service, especially where you feel you have a job for life and there are no incentives to do a good job. Promotion is basically based on tenure and not necessarily on well laid down performance management criteria. Once you have marked the number of years on a particular job, it becomes your right to be promoted. If promotion doesn’t come when you expect it, you whinge and moan.
This entitlement mentality can quickly derail anyone who is not driven by a firm sense of purpose and principles. That’s where good public servants excel; they have a mission beyond self. They understand the public service ethos and are always prepared to stick to their values irrespective of the prevailing fashion, culture, and regime.
The public sector can be described as a gladiatorial arena for power tussle and power relations. It is a system where superior orders are expected to be executed and not challenged. While there is merit in ordering things in the public service, it inadvertently creates a culture of eye-service and possible abuse of power, all in the name of bureaucracy and political correctness. It is a sector that seems to thrive on sycophancy to a large extent. In some cases, you wouldn’t be mistaken to think that it has professionalised sycophancy and taken it to a different level of legitimacy. It can be a bizarre system, where you either shape in or shape out.
To flourish in this politicised system, most people would be inclined to move from one alliance or camp to the other. To grow in the system, favours are exchanged and returned in different forms. Some of these exchanges of favours might entail some compromises, which may live with some people throughout their careers in the service. Once compromised, you become a cheap tool and can be easily blackmailed to be further compromised. It becomes a vicious cycle of compromises, which often leads to some internal discomforts, frustrations, and even disappointments. The few who survive this cycle usually do not expect anything from anyone. They live and do their work without any expectations. They don’t feel like pawns in the hands of some powerful people. They are not easily disappointed.
Because they expect nothing from no one, they also allow others to be. They understand power as a transient phenomenon, which can be given up at any point in time. In that regard, they respect others and do not misuse the powers of their office. They might be respected in turn, but for them, it doesn’t really matter if that’s the case or not, since they hold no firm expectations of others. Sometimes, many might see this approach as a weakness in a power laden work culture, however, it allows the good public servants not to attract negative energies to themselves.
Finally, good public servants are detached from the paraphernalia of their office and job. They see themselves as true servants who are always ready to move to the next call of duty. They don’t see themselves as kings and emperors who need to build empires wherever they find themselves. Those who build empires are often attached to their edifices and do all within their means to retain power and control. In the process, they become so attached to these edifices to the point that they won’t easily let go or move on. It truly hurts when they lose power and are asked to move on, which will always happen.
While the good public servant seems romanticised, it also comes with its consequences. One of these consequences is that a good public servant is not necessarily a wealthy public servant. Some positions and organisations pay very well, while others do not pay as well. However, the good public servant lives within his or her means and largely remains fulfilled, though. As they say, and ideally, money is not everything; but practically, money is necessary to meet some basic necessities of life. This is where idealism meets pragmatism, and the options are not usually easy for someone who is not D.E.A.D!
Unfortunately, given the scheme of things in Nigeria today, the temptation to avoid being a good public servant is very high. The lure of possessions, power, positions, and properties can be so overwhelming and potentially destructive and destabilising. If we truly want our public sector to thrive and support our developmental agenda, then we need more good public servants.
Good public servants need to be identified, nurtured, and supported. That way, they can continue to be D.E.A.D and flourish in a conducive and enabling environment.
Amaeshi is a public commentator and professor of business and sustainable development at the University of Edinburgh Business School, United Kingdom. He tweets @kenamaeshi