FOLLOW THE FILE / How to Wrap Roasted Yam
By: Salisu Suleiman
Many Nigerian professionals, experts and businesses, both at home and in the Diaspora send hundreds, even thousands of proposals to government ministries and public sector agencies every year. These proposals cover a wide range of products and services which they might have seen elsewhere and thought of introducing back home. Somehow, most of these usually well intentioned and well packaged proposals simply disappear in the labyrinth of government. What happens to them?
A brief excursion into the mindset of the Nigerian civil servant and the workings of public sector organizations would explain why the proposals are hardly replied to, or even acknowledged. It may also explain why those beautifully packaged, articulate and detailed proposals never left somebody's desk, or how it ended up as wrapping for someone's groundnut or suya. If you follow the journey of a file through the treacherous jungle of the civil service, you'd know why the sector is so resistant to change and new ideas.
As head of the Ministry, most correspondence from outside are addressed to the ‘Honourable Minister'. (Don't mind the misnomer). The Minister is usually too busy to read proposals, so it gets sent to an assistant. The proposal, without being seen by the minister to whom it is addressed, has taken its first step towards the basket of the groundnut seller. If it is lucky, it may get sent to the Permanent Secretary who will in turn, direct it to the relevant department or director for ‘further necessary action'. Whatever that means.
Many files and proposals get passed on to ever more junior staff until it gets to the last person on the line. By this time, several pages have been added to it without any work on its actual content being done. The officer with whom the proposal ends up is angry because the file got to him only because there is no money involved. And he is right. If there were the prospect or slightest scent of gratification or money coming from somewhere, those at the top would have done the job themselves or hijacked the proposal.
So the officer keeps the file aside. By this time, the proposal would have been several weeks, even months old. It has not been acknowledged, and its authors have no idea what is happening to what they assumed any sane person would jump at. Sometimes, it gets ‘put away'. Sometimes, it gets ‘kept in view'. At other times, it is acted on ‘accordingly'. But in reality, nobody has taken time to actually read and understand what the proposal is about. If the authors persist, and delegate somebody to ‘follow the file', they may get to meet the officer ‘to discuss some aspects of the proposal'. Eventually, they may write a watery recommendation which is ‘humbly submitted' for yet ‘further directives'.
At this point, the file begins its convoluted journey back the way it started, only this time, in reverse! It is now twice the size of the original proposal sent. By the time action is taken, if at all, the owners of the proposal or the officer delegated to track it would have given up. Or simply died out of sheer frustration. If your company is lucky, it may get a reply to your wonderful proposal - several months after the project, consultancy or even plain idea would have been of any use to anybody.
But the above is a good scenario. In many cases, you never get even an acknowledgement. Not even to tell you that your proposal is not needed. Nothing. There is no number to call, no website to visit, nobody to report to. So ‘smart' people, to ensure that their proposals do not get filed away, get a ‘connection' or introduction to the Minister or Permanent Secretary. In this case, the proposal may actually be read by these top functionaries of government. But herein lies the danger of this scenario. If there is money to be made from the proposal, a sheep has just walked straight into the lion's den.
The minister or permanent secretary would congratulate you for developing such a wonderful proposal and how Nigeria needs bright young men and women like you. You leave the office elated, perhaps even thinking of the project you're soon to be engaged in, and the money you'd soon be making. Sorry for you.
As soon as you leave, they call their special assistants (in one case, a female minister's brother) who will transfer your entire proposal – wood, stock and barrel to another company letterhead and submit same to the same minister or permanent secretary. So while you go about planning, and even incurring liabilities on the proposed project, your ideas would have been processed, bastardized, shabbily implemented (if at all), and 10 times the amount you asked for paid to these fictitious companies. By this time, the minister or permanent secretary (if he is still in the same ministry), would have become totally inaccessible. So much for connections.
You one day open a newspaper or tune in to news to see or watch your proposal being ‘commissioned'. This ‘direct stealing' of ideas and proposals is not restricted to the only top level management. Virtually every civil servant has a company or has access to one that can be used to ‘lift' peoples' professional ideas and other consultancy proposals. Even sealed bids have known to be expertly opened, competitors' ideas stolen and bettered, so that they usually come up with the most cost effective and most comprehensive submissions. If you think that is far-fetched, you do not know the system.
So, if you have been wondering why those thoughtful, articulate and well-written proposals from experts and professionals to public (and even private) sector organizations never get anywhere, you have to ‘follow the file'. Then you will see that the proposal was either both hijacked and poorly implemented, or somebody somewhere simply couldn't be bothered. Or worse still, somebody thought it would make good wrapping for roasted yam.
Suleiman is a student of the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria