The post of the permanent secretary came into effect with independence and the implementation of the Nigerianisation Policy that was meant to fill the supernumerary posts with Nigerians. The office of the permanent secretary, historically speaking, since it was inaugurated by PM Lord Grey in 1830 to replace the post of Under Secretary in Britain with Sir John Burrow as the first to bear the title of perm sec, is meant to assist the ministers of a government in ways that obey the restriction imposed by the politics-administration dichotomy.
This is why the permanent secretary has been characterized as “the permanent custodian of permanent problems”—in her capacity as chief policy adviser, chief administrative or operations officer and the accounting officer.
It is the permanence of the office that facilitate the continuity of succeeding governments. Indeed, it is the functional optimality of the permanent secretary that ensures that the public service serves as the backbone of a developmental state. This is why the office of the permanent secretary becomes the number one candidate for an institutional reform.
Reforming the office of the permanent secretary, following the imperatives of managerialism, is transforming it into a CEO, a technology-savvy, efficient, accountable, effective, and entrepreneurial manager and change agent with the capacities and competences to superintend a public service in a knowledge age and postcolonial administrative context. The reform agenda is to make the performing PS answer the objectives of optimal productivity for country like Nigeria that has been bedeviled by low productivity.
In reforming the permanent secretary into a transformational manager responsible for a ministry’s performance profile, the reform is also meant to set up the office of the PS into a hub around which a new breed of public-spirited public servants will be recruited, trained and deployed.
To therefore become an efficient change agent, the permanent secretary must not only be an institutional memory, but a product of a professionalized recruitment, retention, talent pipelining, and incentivization process, while she must also be circumscribed by an individual performance agreement or contract that is part of a larger performance management strategies meant to boost the productivity of a developmental state. The recruitment process, with a larger objective of constituting a senior executive service (SES), will be subordinated to human resource management dynamics that recruit based on the administrative philosophy undergirding the developmental state.
Given that the twenty-first century permanent secretary must operate within a VUCA—volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous—administrative environment made more complex by COVID-19, there is the need for both technical, administrative and cultural reorientations that insinuate the training of the public servant within the new ambit of public values, action-molding administrative imperatives (ethical values, i.e. integrity, honesty, respect; democratic values, i.e. responsiveness, representativeness, rule of law; and professional values, i.e. excellence, innovation), and what has been called “twenty-first century literacies” (interpersonal skills: facilitation, empathy, political skills; synthesizing skills: sorting evidence, analysis, making judgements, offering critique and being creative; organizing skills: group work, collaboration and peer review; and communication skills: better use of new media and multi-media resources). And in straddling the generalist and professional roles, the new permanent secretary is required to function as an expert (to advise the government on policy design), regulator (providing oversight on the non-core responsibilities of government), an engager (mediating between government and the citizens on what constitutes the public good), and a reticulist (who identifies new competences required for performance).
In administrative and institutional terms, the new understanding of the permanent secretary as a change agent makes her a transformational leader that is more collaborative than heroic. With strategic intelligence and collaborative competences, she is saddled with the responsibilities of overseeing the transformation of an institution of which she must manage to generate policy intelligence that will stimulate performance and eventually enhance productivity. This is what Ahmed Joda and the band of super permanent secretaries exemplify. This is the legacy we should perpetuate in their honor.
Olaopa is a Retired Federal Permanent Secretary & Professor of Public Administration, National Institute For Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS), Kuru, Jos.