Former Director General, Bureau of Public Enterprises, and Secretary, Council on Privatization, Nigeria
Focus: Getting the News Out/Managing Expectations, Civil Service
Topics: Training, Sequencing Reform, Corruption in the Civil Service, Computerization of Records, Downsizing
Keywords: budgeting, capacity building, computerization, corruption, downsizing, donor relations, pay reform, reform sequencing, training, cities, getting the word out, managing expectations, transparency, service delivery, privatization
Interviewer(s): Graeme Blair and Daniel Scher
Country of Reform: Nigeria
Location: Washington, D.C., United States
Date: Fri Jun 19 2009
Nasir El-Rufai narrates his entry into public service in the context of the return to democracy under President Olusegun Obasanjo. As an outsider to the political scene, he managed to advocate for privatization and eventually drafted and implemented a concrete multistage plan. El-Rufai identifies the “easy” cases for privatization as companies that are (1) already listed on the stock exchange, (2) easy to value, (3) already operational in competitive markets, and/or (4) not politically contentious. In contrast, the “hard” cases require progressive policy reform including regulatory sector review, enactment of legislation for independent oversight, implementation of antitrust measures and, notably, the creation of a pension system. In dealing with trade unions and special interest groups, El-Rufai highlights the importance of legal tools and the support of the media, the general public and figures with considerable political capital, such as Obasanjo and Vice President Atiku Abubakar. He also describes his office’s instrumental collaboration with the newly created Economic and Financial Crimes Commission in the fight against money laundering and, in particular, the Nigerian letter scams. During Obasanjo’s second term, El-Rufai joined the Economic Management Team that successfully renegotiated the Nigerian external debt and pursued wide-ranging reform. He attributes the success to the trust, sacrifice and synergy established within the team; their capacity to understand and integrate Obasanjo’s political goals into a reform plan; and their ability to capitalize on booming oil prices by using revenues to strengthen fiscal rule. His commitment to reform continued during his tenure as minister for the Federal Capital Territory (FCT Abuja). To improve the quality of service delivery, he promoted the involvement of the private sector in service provision and increased the range of options for public staff training, including attachment with public and private entities in Nigeria and abroad, and post-graduate training at Harvard Business School. El-Rufai also sought to disincentivize engagement in corruption by increasing remuneration. He addressed the challenge of limited resources by focusing on civil service downsizing and reduction of state expenditure followed by a pay increase across the board. The necessary downsizing was achieved through a double strategy. First, following the computerization of personnel management, ghost workers were identified and eliminated from the system. Second, permanent secretaries were tasked with identifying underperforming or corrupt civil servants, who were offered retirement packages. As the administration could reject resignations, the drain of the best public servants was prevented, and El-Rufai aimed to address the sources of their discontent, such as shortcomings in the promotion system. On the other hand, cost reduction mainly entailed the transfer of government-provided housing and vehicles to private ownership by civil servants, amortized through a newly created mortgage system and installment plans. El-Rufai then discusses another major and controversial achievements of his tenure, namely the land titling initiative, highlighting the role of democratizing information to manage public pressure and increase transparency. In closing, his personal reflections on public policy making include the need for immersion in the political scene to ensure the continuity of reform across administrations, and the importance of formal training in public administration to understand how to frame policy to overcome resistance and biases.
Full InterviewDownload MP3 (136 MB)
Nasir El-Rufai Interview
A quantity surveyor by training, Nasir Ahmad El-Rufai worked as a consultant in the construction private sector for years. After declining several offers to join the public sector, in 1999 he became president Olusegun Obasanjo’s director general of the Bureau of Public Enterprises and Secretary of the National Council on Privatization. During Obasanjo’s second term, he served as a member of the Economic Management Team and took over as minister for the Federal Capital Territory (Abuja), where he led civil service reform and undertook the computerization of Abuja’s land register. He served briefly under President Umaru Yar’Adua. After leaving public service, he completed legal and public management training programs at the University of London and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.