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Professionalising the bureaucracy: Strengthening public service institutions through capacity building

By Precious Imuwahen Ajoonu

In what has now become a watershed of sorts, the 1997 World Development Report helped frame consensus on the critical role of the state in promoting development and reducing poverty in a rapidly interconnected global economy. Titled ‘The State in a Changing World’, the report identified three existential challenges facing the state:’managing globalisation, building institutions, and supporting civil society’. These factors undoubtedly have direct implications for government business and require imperative public service reforms.

However, despite all efforts at public service reforms in Africa in the past four decades, there have been mixed outcomes.

Understanding where the problems lie in the mixed results of civil service reforms in Africa is key to achieving the growth and development goals of national economies on the continent.

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Beyond ‘quantitative adjustments’

In a study by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa published in 2010 titled ‘Innovations and best practices in public sector reforms: the case of civil service in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa’ it was discovered that phased reforms covering the 1980s and after the end of apartheid in South Africa in 1994 did not bring about the desired results envisioned in Civil Service Reforms (CSR) within these countries. “CSRs succeeded in the quantitative aspects of the reforms, namely, the reduction of the number of people who worked in the civil and public services. Between 1986 and 1996, countries reduced their civil services by more than 10%, resulting in the lowest number of civil servants per population in the world. Compared to other developing countries that have a civil service size per population of three percent, Africa’s declined to one percent by 1996 (Lienert, 1998). Most of the reductions were achieved through a combination of early retirements, voluntary retrenchment with generous severance payments, audits and organisational restructurings, wage freezes, and attrition,” the study stated.

However, the core problem remained.

Simply put, the core problem can be phrased thus: “How to improve the quality of personnel within the public service sector and optimise its processes to adapt swiftly to the requirements of the tech-driven world.”

To solve this critical challenge, we must first build capacity to ensure that our civil and public servants have the skills, knowledge, and ability necessary to deliver public goods. By professionalising the bureaucracy, we simplify governance and truly change the mindset of our workforce.

JOOPSA: A pioneering trailblazer in Nigeria

Whereas central governments steer civil service reform as national policy objectives, the idea that non-central governments can effectively innovate on their own is not often tested in the global south. Despite contemporary theory and praxis on this subject, the Edo State Government in southern Nigeria has remained at the cutting-edge of delivering public service reform. Scarce resources did not limit the scope and audacity of the vision of His Excellency, Governor Godwin Nogheghase Obaseki, to efficiently drive the engine of government.

In Nigeria’s Edo State, the John Odigie-Oyegun Public Service Academy (JOOPSA) was established in 2023 ‘to strengthen public service institutions through capacity building.’ And within a year, JOOPSA is already forging strategic partnerships with leading global institutions. These partnerships will provide additional resources and expertise to enhance the training and development opportunities for civil and public servants in Edo State and beyond.

A closer look inside the box

JOOPSA hit the ground running, taking a series of corrective actions, such as: i) creating a change coalition called the Inter-Ministerial Counterpart Team (IMCT), made up of all the directors of shared services. ii) Set up a government innovation hub or tech lab to promote digital upskilling within the service. iii) Created a course catalogue made up of foundational courses such as Public Service Fundamentals, Public Policy Fundamentals, Project Management, Change Management, Professional Etiquette for Public Servants, Building High-Performing Teams, Leadership Skills Training, Public Finance Management, Ethics, Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Basic Computer Appreciation Skills, and other soft and hard skills. iv) Leverage an internal and adjunct faculty made up of top subject matter experts.

Training operations began in March 2023, and by the end of 2023, over 10,000 workers had been trained, equipping them with the necessary skills to support the effective implementation of the government’s transformational policies.

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JOOPSA is also passionate about diversity and inclusion and has created courses intended particularly for women’s inclusion in public service. In this aspect, JOOPSA champions gender equality and is proud to have organised a leadership discourse during the 2024 International Women’s Day celebration for 300 women. These women represented a diverse spectrum, including not only civil and public servants but also female undergraduate students from tertiary institutions, NYSC corps members, market women, business women, and even entrepreneurs.

While JOOPSA’s impact continues to grow, focus is now on developing mechanisms for its sustainability. As the Pioneer Director General, I recognise this as the opportunity of a lifetime, which has the potential to change the trajectory of the public service and how citizens interact with government. We are in the process of developing and drafting a competency model for Edo State, together with our technical partner Development Alternatives Incorporated (DAI).

JOOPSA is a well-structured and strategically positioned flag ship on the venture to secure an intelligent and forward-thinking workplace in public service in Edo State, in Nigeria, and in Africa.


Precious Imuwahen Ajoonu is the Pioneer Director General of the John Odigie-Oyegun Public Service Academy in Edo State, Nigeria.