Who Dropped the Ball? Nigeria’s Under-functioning Bureaucracy

[Image credit: Motorists try to avoid waterlogged potholes on the Apapa Oshodi expressway in Lagos on 20 October 2014. Photo: AFP/Pius Utomi Ekpei]

Philip Ikita is a sociologist and development expert. He is a former University of Bradford Rotary Peace Fellow, and has worked for RTI International, USAID, and River State Youth Leadership Initiative. This post is reproduced with permission from his personal blog- http://naijatransparencygist.blogspot.co.uk/  

My first encounter with the phrase ‘who dropped the ball’ was in a small office of about a dozen staff or ‘team members’ in Abuja. The flush system in one of the three toilets in the office was malfunctioning for nearly two weeks, when it was reported and proven to have malfunctioned for nearly that long, the staff or ‘team member’ responsible for operations, which includes ensuring functional toilets, barely escaped a formal query, but with a very strong warning.

His excuse that it was not reported to him fell flat: “it is your responsibility to ensure that every facility is functional”, warned the head of the office. From then onwards, the Operations point person delegated it to the cleaner, and all staff reported any toilet issues to the cleaner and the cleaner responded effectively.

In normally functional systems, responsibilities are diligently delegated to parts of the system, each part performing a small function to make the whole system functional, and continue to remain almost perfectly functional at all times. This can be likened to members of a small team – say half a dozen people – positioned in a cycle and passing to each other a ball which must be protected and never allowed to fell off to the ground, and hurt the smooth team function of keeping the ball from ‘hurt’; the ‘ball’ must always remain properly inflated so it may be passed to the next team member by bouncing it on. If the ‘ball’ fells out of the passing game, the question must be asked: Who dropped the ball? Who caused the ball to drop and roll away from the next team member? Where is the ball? The team members and the ball symbolize a ‘system’ that must function towards a set-out standard.

A lot of simple, ordinary systems within our bureaucracy fail to function properly and it is very often very difficult to locate where the fault is. Who is causing simple processes to not function properly?

Take the conveniences or the toilets of a typical public office for illustration: this is an office with high citizen traffic that should have clean toilets throughout the time on each business day. The person in charge of facilities must have a team that includes cleaners who should keep the toilets neat and functional at all times, washed at regular intervals – every 30 minutes, every 45 minutes or every 60 minutes – ensure there is soap on the hand-washing basins, ensure there is toilet roll at all times. The most important team member responsible for this is the cleaner. The best way to keep toilets clean then, is to empower the cleaner with responsibility for all the little things required to keep the toilet functional at all times. If it fails to function, the cleaner has got to explain why, and if the ‘explanation’ is not satisfactory, then that cleaner must be deemed to have ‘dropped the ball’ and must be made to face consequences for ‘dropping the ball’.

In the early weeks of Nigeria’s National Conference in 2014, news reports claimed that delegates complained of a lack of toilet roll in the toilets. Somebody must have dropped the ball! In most cases in Nigeria, even petty matters like ensuring functional toilets which should easily be managed by a cleaner, are centralized and controlled by ‘oga-at-the-top’: all the overhead or petty operational cash (‘imperest’ in Nigeria’s bureaucratic parlance) budgeted for cleaning goes to the ‘oga at the top’ who has no business with toilet matters (except of course to enjoy relieving himself/herself in a clean toilet at any time).

Just set out a standard operating procedure (SOP) for any barely schooled cleaner and let out the resources to him/her, then hold him/her responsible whenever, whenever the toilet fails to function according to the SOP. That way, all team members have responsibilities and must explain whenever the ball drops: who ‘dropped the ball’?

Take the large port-holes on our roads for another illustration, there needs to be a ‘system’ of ‘team’ members with different responsibilities towards ensuring that all little cracks are sealed-up, at very minimal costs before they become huge craters and gullies. If a crack is discovered to be widening towards becoming a pot-hole, it means that the ‘ball was dropped’ by one of the team members. Members of a team here may include delegated staff of the responsible agency that move around particular roads to survey for any new cracks and report back for action to be effected, this can be effectively supplemented by a call system for the public to also report fresh holes or cracks on the roads. In such a system, questions should be asked to locate the team member that caused a little hole or crack to fester or widen to become a pot-hole. Was it reported and somebody failed to take action? Who ‘dropped the ball’?

Yet another illustration for ‘dropping the ball’ can be seen in the May 2014 reports of a mutiny by soldiers of the 7th Division of the Nigerian Army in Maimalari Barracks, Maiduguri. Though denied by the defence authorities, the Defence spokesman, Major General Chris Olukolade was reported (in The Nation, May 15 2014) to have said “the commanding officer of the 101 battalion had actually gone to Abuja for a course and could not have deliberately refused to pay their allowances…It is true the soldiers raised many issues of concern annoying them…”. The military high command then went on to set up a court to try the “annoyed” soldiers.

Clearly, somebody dropped the ball, causing the soldiers to risk their lives in the field without their allowances, one team member that clearly appeared to have ‘dropped the ball’ is the commanding officer that went on course to Abuja without delegating to ensure the system continued to function smoothly. Yet, we would rather embark on costly committee enquiries to determine ‘what went wrong’.

It is not by magic or miracles that we encounter clean toilets or smooth roads without pot-holes in the so-called developed world. It is simple: individuals in a team are given responsibilities for different tiny bits of routine work that must make the whole system functional. The slightest system failure raises the question ‘who dropped the ball?’ – thus, all team members struggle to avoid ‘dropping the ball’. The team leader thus, turns the fire on the team members to locate where the ‘ball has dropped’ or where the ‘ball is always dropping’. It becomes very easy to locate any team member that ‘mishandled’ the ball, or makes the ball to drop too often. The team leader is held responsible if s/he cannot ensure that the team members keep the ball moving seamlessly.

Wherever (including Nigeria) a system works efficiently and effectively, responsibilities are clearly delineated and delegated top-down. Everyone no matter how low down the ladder is an important and responsible member of a team that must account for the responsibilities given to him/her. Anyone one who causes the slightest malfunction in the system is easily identified, and if a team member ‘drops the ball’ too frequently, that team member must be made to ‘shape up’ and get ‘shipped out’ by the leader of the team.

Contrarily, our bureaucracy concentrates all the authority in the head, instead of diffusing responsibilities to other team members. Thus, very few people are empowered with huge burdens of authority and responsibilities, leaving the majority of workers down the ladder to wander redundantly with no responsibilities and no accountability for anything. We need to devolve authority by effectively delegating responsibilities down the hierarchy in our government agencies and ensure that more people are given a role in making sure the ‘ball does not drop’.

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