By Akintola Benson- Oke
THERE is disagreement among linguists on the definition of the word, ‘mantra.’ On the one hand, in the practise of spiritual disciplines (and especially in Hinduism and Buddhism), a mantra is a word or sound that is believed to have a special spiritual power. Thus, a personal mantra is sometimes repeated as an aid to meditation or prayer.
On the other hand , the expression, mantra, is also wide enough to cover a word or phrase that is often repeated, and which expresses a particular strong belief. For instance, British fans often chant the familiar football mantra: “Here we go, here we go, here we go…”
There is also a long history of scholarly disagreement on the meaning of mantras and whether they are instruments of mind, as implied by the etymological origin of the word mantra. One school suggests that mantras are mostly meaningless sound constructs, while the other holds them to be mostly meaningful linguistic instruments of mind. Both schools agree that mantras have melody and a well-designed mathematical precision in their construction and that their influence on the reciter and listener is similar to what is observed in people around the world listening to their beloved music that is devoid of words.
It is in the light of the foregoing appreciation of the power of mantras that one would also appreciate the use of mantras in electioneering campaigns. Writing on this with reference to the 2008 Obama campaign, Michael Marinaccio, a political theorist opined that, “in the 2008 election, the Obama campaign introduced a flurry of mnemonic devices that, while similar in fashion to the political slogans of yesterday, separated themselves in a critical way: it consolidated thinking. “Yes We Can” — “Change We Can Believe In” — “Change We Need” — “Change.” The slogans reduced and fused every idea into a word. For “Change We Can Believe In,” it was reduced to change. With “Yes We Can,” it was reduced to yes and can. Change became a clarion call for bold action and monumental shifts in governing style, a fundamental repudiation of the previous eight years.”
The use of the word, ‘change’ as a political slogan or mantra has been extensive and, in the 2015 general elections in Nigeria, we had a fair share of it. The concern, however, is that mantras and slogans are not easily converted into concrete actions. As Tim Blixseth noted, “many great ideas go unexecuted, and many great executioners are without ideas. One without the other is worthless.”
In Lagos State, we have been mindful of avoiding that pitfall. Since his assumption of office in 2015, Governor Akinwunmi Ambode has led and supported the Ministry of Establishments, Training and Pensions to design and deploy a series of trainings and workshops designed to concretise and convert our change mantra into meaningful, measurable, consequential and sustainable change in the Lagos State Civil Service.
In the pursuit of this end, we have found that the key to making such concretisation and conversion is the pursuit of quality in the processes and service offerings of the Lagos State Civil Service. Thus, this training titled, Re-Charting the Path to Quality: The Sustainable Road to the Change Mantra, has been designed by the Ministry of Establishments, Training and Pensions and approved by the governor to knit together all the factors and knowledge nuggets that will ensure that this administration’s change mantra indeed births the desired concrete change for the civil service.
A passionate commitment to the mission of the Lagos State Civil Service is a sine qua non in the pursuit of quality offerings and concretisation of change. It is well known that excitement trickles down and is infectious. When civil servants are enthused about the organisation and its mission, the services rendered will mirror this enthusiasm. Furthermore, such enthusiasm will stimulate a passionate commitment to the pursuit of excellence and quality.
Knowledge of the organisation’s strategic vision is also important to the attainment of qualitative output in the civil service. Civil servants must always remain focused on the strategic vision and the long-term mission of the organisation. Staff members can become narrowly obsessed with the day-to-day operations of the service, but it is important for all stakeholders to understand the 5, 10, and 20-year plans. It is also important to remember that the organisation was in existence long before officers arrived and will remain in existence long after they leave.
The possession of conceptualisation skills is the third of the critical factors affecting the attainment and sustenance of the pursuit of quality offerings in the civil service. Business magnate, Chester I. Barnard argued the importance of conceptualisation skill when he wrote: “…the essential aspect of the [executive] process is the sensing of the organisation as a whole and of the total situation relevant to it.” The purport of this is that officers of the Lagos State Civil Service must always be able to see how any one action or decision affects every part of the service and its service offerings.
In the fourth place, paying attention to detail is an important skill expected of civil servants who will pursue and deliver quality services. As important as it is for officers to see the big picture and think strategically, it is equally important for them to pay attention to the details. This does not mean that officers have to be involved in every minor decision, or undermine the decisions of subordinates and colleagues; rather, every officer must remain aware of the activities of the other officers and the status of projects, thus allowing autonomy whenever possible.
Effective delegation of responsibilities and duties is also an art and skill that civil servants must acquire and master. There is a fine line between delegating tasks to staff and shirking from responsibilities, knowing subordinates and colleagues will take up the slack. The Lagos State Civil Service must navigate this distinction by assigning not just tasks, but clearly defined spheres of influence where officers have authority to make decisions. Delegating tasks and responsibilities in this manner empowers officers to grow in their positions, preparing them for future leadership positions.
An in-built capacity to identify and grow talent is yet another important capacity that the civil service must acquire and cultivate. The Lagos State Civil Service, if it must deliver quality, must be able to take existing talents within the organisation, nurture it, and place officers in positions where they can be most successful. The processes and style of the civil service must be careful not to stifle staff growth by becoming overbearing or forcing officers into positions for which they are ill-suited.
The Lagos State Civil Service must also become even more savvy in its hiring processes and decisions. Indeed, many people enter public service because they have a deep desire to make their community a better place. However, desire and skill do not necessarily go hand-in-hand. The decision makers can set their agencies or organisations up for success from the very beginning by hiring the right people for the right jobs at the right time. Great administrators take measured risks, knowing that one bad hire can have negative ripple effects through the rest of the organization.
Prudence and Creativity are also essential to delivering quality within budget and other economic constraints. In most circumstances, civil servants work on shoestring budgets with short deadlines and difficult, seemingly impossible, objectives. Effective civil servants thrive on those unique challenges and use the restrictions as a way to showcase their creativity. Civil Servants are thus able to come up with creative solutions to complex problems, usually by seeing an issue from a new perspective or by innovating a new approach to the solution.
Finally, the Lagos State Civil Service must expand and deepen its digital communication skills in order to solidify the delivery of quality offerings to the citizens. Social media and digital communication platforms, such as email and video, are cornerstones of modern communications. While leaders in for-profit organisations are responsible to shareholders, they have much more freedom to determine when and where they will communicate. However, civil servants are ultimately beholden to the people, and may be held accountable for their actions at any time. The civil service must therefore exhibit excellent digital communication skills, especially communication via social media. This will ensure that the civil service effectively bridges the gap between the modern citizenry and the government.
Dr. Akintola, Benson Oke, Honourable Commissioner, Lagos State Ministry of Establishments, Training and Pensions