So, on Thursday the 24th of August, 2017, we held the inaugural edition of our conversation series, #PODEMeets. Our Debut Special Guest was Dr. Joe Abah, at that time one day to the end of his four-year tenure as Director General, Bureau Of Public Service Reforms (BPSR). Yes, it was his final week as DG, and we had the opportunity to get him to reflect on the preceding four years, in this hour-long interview (full video above). Below are highlights of what he said:
- ON HIS VISION/AMBITION AS DIRECTOR GENERAL, BPSR:
What I set out to achieve, I did 100%.
I set out to demonstrate that change is possible in Nigeria and that you can re-orientate the public service.
We successfully intervened in areas that affect the day- to-day lives of citizens through the Enabling Business Environment Secretariat, Visa on Arrival, making airport experiences better, getting passports easier, driving licenses, tax clearances, identity management numbers, and so on.
I aimed to show Nigerians that with skill, determination and courage, change could happen here.
This is what I set out to achieve and is by far, my greatest achievement.
2. ON PUBLIC SERVICE EFFICIENCY AND ACCOUNTABILITY:
There are some things I wish we were able to tackle such as the proliferation of agencies and parastatals. The more we spend on unnecessary options, the less there is to spend on more important things.
I am positive that we will still get to it in terms of making sure our (public) agencies are fit for purpose and can deliver better.
Cutting down on the number of agencies does not mean the other ones will perform better. The emphasis must be on delivery. It is important the agencies function because they are the ones that have the power, the law and the money. They need to be able to generate wealth for government, have the best staff because when agencies are working, the people on the street will say government is working. Also, I wish I had more time to work on policing but I am sure it will be worked on. I also wish I was able to work on the collective of revenue generating agencies such as the NNPC.
3. ON THE WORKINGS OF GOVERNMENT:
Detailed knowledge about the workings of government is not common. Even civil society organisations and NGOs who should know, don’t. I think government needs to do more to inform the government about how things are actually happening.
That is why I am pleased that Nigeria signed up for the Open Government Partnership (OGP) and the OGP includes a permanent dialogue mechanism with the civil society.
BPSR will shortly be releasing, ‘A Citizen’s Guide to Budgeting”. The guide will cover a wide range of basic issues about budgeting.
4. ON SOCIAL MEDIA:
Social Media changed my work. When I first came into the bureau, there were a number if basics that had to be put in place. The reforms had no plan, no strategy and there was no co-ordinated mechanism of any sort so there were things that I had to put in place first — reforming the reforms. We produced basic guides that were not available, for example basic guide on running an agency. We also produced basic guides that were not available such as the basic guide on running an agency. We also produced a guide on how to cut down on agencies and parastatals as well as how to merge agencies. The first two years were used to put in place certain things and I did not become active on social media until late 2015. We had partnered with a lot of international bodies, done studies with Harvard, with other governments because the nature of our work can be intellectual.
I learnt that as a public servant, being able to instantly communicate information to millions of people directly without hoping the press man will not distort the information is a major plus.
Being able to explain things in your own words was great. The downside is that it takes a lot of time.
5. ON COPING WITH THE REALITY OF HIS IMPENDING DEPARTURE:
The work I do here is the work I have done all my life. So even before I got here, I knew the people involved and I expect that will continue.
The fact that I’m leaving as the Director General of BPSR does not mean I will no longer continue to be involved in the reforms.
In some way or the other, I will still be hopefully able to add value.
I will miss my staff and I will miss the power to intervene directly in issues but it is my life’s work and it continues, I never will retire because this is my life’s work.
This is why I do not feel that level of disengagement because I expect to continue to be involved. I never got used to the trappings of power so that makes it easier. I never demanded or enjoyed special privileges.
6. ON HAVING THE RIGHT ATTITUDE:
There is a low level of confidence that people have in themselves and so people did not believe me when I said I was appointed solely because of the strength of my CV. I had no godfather. It is important to believe that some things work and they can work for you. People will always tell you why it is not possible and why you should not try and that is the worst advice you can take for yourself.
My approach in BPSR was that I will keep going until somebody says stop and no one ever stopped me. We mostly feel that as public servants, someone will not like something but it is just that we do not push our agenda enough.
If you are also not hung up on taking the glory, you will go further. You cannot be focused on chasing the right objective and be stopped by anybody. I urge people not to be self-defeatist.
7. ON WHAT’S NEXT, POST-BPSR:
Over the next few years, I will try to earn a lot more money for my family; go back to being able to take scheduled holidays with the family a few times a year.
I will be available to all for hire although I do not expect to still be as active on social media. I will be focused on more intellectual and academic work.