Public Institutions and Public Trust
Talking about the public institution, Mahatma Gandhi in his autobiography titled; The Story of My Experiment with Truth, among other things stated that a public institution is an institution conducted with the approval, and from the funds of the public, warning that whenever such an institution ceases to have public support, it forfeits its right to exist.
Institutions maintained on permanent funds, he noted, are often found to ignore public opinion, and are frequently responsible for acts contrary to it. And concluded that India at every step experienced situations where public institutions instead of living like nature, from day to day, abandoned the ideals of public trust.
Indeed, if such worry expressed about a century ago was ugly, what is currently happening here is a crisis. As the same attitude of ignoring public opinions has become a word made flesh, and now dwell among public institutions in Nigeria.
Concretely, developed societies encourage public institutions to get in constant touch with reality and open dialogues with well-informed but quietly influential citizens and organizations in order to benefit from their experience and expertize.
But what we have here is but a direct opposite- as the public institutions are against all known logic reputed for flagrant disregard of public opinions, advice and requests from well-meaning Nigerians and organizations; that ordinarily ought to be their partners in the business of moving the nation forward.
Telling evidence of such scourge is the Code of Conduct Bureau’s (CCB) recent refusal to grant the Freedom of Information’s (FOI) request by Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Projects (SERAP) for the release of copies of the declaration forms of former state governors and Presidents on the grounds that the declaration forms are private documents.
Admittedly, some documents are lawfully tagged classified. However, looking at commentaries, apart from the fact that power to decide whether the private document in a public office remain private or otherwise lies not within CCB but the Court, its refusal to the request curiously negates provisions by both the ‘UN Convention against Corruption and the African Union Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption which clearly articulates important roles for civil society in the fight against corruption further plagued the Bureau’s argument’.
And runs contrary to the provisions of Section 1(1) of the FOI Act which clearly stated thus; notwithstanding anything contained in any other Act, law or regulation, the right of any person to access or request information, whether or not contained in any written form, which is in the custody or possession of any public official, agency or institution howsoever described, is established.
Working under this condition, one becomes more and more occupied with questions as to how this attitude of public institutions in Nigeria can be corrected particularly as the sole aim of such establishments is service. Who will stop this progressive decay in our public institutions which like an unchained torrent of water is submerging our ‘political and socioeconomic countrysides? Should we allow it to continue, leaving the nation to enjoy or suffer whatever fruit it bears in future?
Obviously, in my opinion, our principal duty for the moment should be to find out factors fueling public institution inefficiencies and disobedience to public opinion.
And as far back as I can remember a link inevitably exists in practical as well as moral terms, between these frosty behaviours of our public institution and bureaucracy which characterizes public administration in Nigeria.
Specifically, nothing supports this claim more than the position as argued by Robert Kiyosaki, a world acclaimed management consultant, where he among other concerns noted that the problem with the world is that many allow their institutions to be led by bureaucrats. And went ahead to define a bureaucrat as someone who is in the position of authority such as government/public office but who takes no professional and financial risks. And further underlined that a bureaucrat can lose a lot of money but they do not lose any of their own. They get paid whenever they do a job or not.
The above without doubt explains why many Ministries, Departments and some other Government Agencies in Nigeria is without strategic plans in spite of development practitioners arguments that strategies and policies are fundamental to the progress and development of institutions. Having known that their salaries will be paid with or without doing any work, many of the public institutions don’t bother reviewing their policies. Even in some extreme cases, the implementation of the existing policies have been characterized by discontinuity, reversals and somersaults’
It is on good the ground that one of the most basic of these realities is that since independence in October 1960, the country has demonstrated that there is no development plan that achieved fully its core objectives- a fault traceable to lack of systematic planning framework that ensures adequate data and research, good information system, monitoring and evaluation.
However, poor service delivery may not be the only consequence or bureaucracy, the only explanation for flagrant disregard of public opinion by public institutions.
The barefaced illusion by these civil servants that they are more nationalistic or patriotic than other citizens is a contributing factor. This baffling disposition in effect prepares the ground for exercising power and responsibility, not as a trust for the public good, but as an opportunity for private gains and promotes nepotism, cronyism and corruption as consequences.
Next to gross poverty of history which roundly prevents these bureaucrats learning from the consequences that befell their predecessor who ignored public opinion, is the excruciating poverty in the land which drives more people into the ranks of beggars, whose desperate struggle for bread renders insensible to demand quality service from public institutions.
Looking ahead, If truly a people- purposed leadership is what we seek if the accelerated economy is our goal, if social and cultural development is our dreams if promoting peace, supporting our industries and improving our energy sector forms our objectives, then, the solution lies in the government’s urgent recognition that those structures that created failures in those institutions will also prevent the implementation of incentives that will improve performance. Also, attempting to engineer prosperity without first confronting the root cause of the problem and the politics that kept them in the place is a mere waste of time.
While calling for the restructuring of public institution to deliver service, Mr President should start thinking public-private-partnership for key responsibilities such as infrastructural development-a structural and managerial model globally recognized for curbing bureaucracy and corruption in public institutions and instilling public trust.
Utomi writes from Lagos.