As part of the four-month Designer-Researcher program in Nigeria in late 2022, MIT GOV/LAB worked with the Presidential Enabling Business Environment Council (PEBEC), to address a governance challenge.Joining efforts with the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS), the PEBEC and FIRS teams developed two solutions for improving small and medium enterprises’ experiences with the tax system. These ideas were pitched to the now former Vice President, with the solutions welcomed to move forward into prototyping phases in early 2023. You can read about a FIRS team member’s takeaways from this design challenge in part one of this blog.

Tolulope (Tolu) Abdul is the Operations Lead of PEBEC who acted as PEBEC and FIRS’s combined team lead during the design challenge co-facilitated by MIT. In this Q&A conversation, Tolu reflects on what it takes to innovate through both legal and design approaches in Nigeria’s government. The interview has been modified for clarity and length. 

Seong: Can you tell us a bit about PEBEC and how it innovates for governance within Nigeria?

Tolu:  The Presidential Enabling Business Environment Council (PEBEC) was set up by the former President Muhammadu Buhari to revitalize Nigeria’s business landscape through strategic reforms and policies. Central to PEBEC’s success is the political backing of the former Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, who presides over the Council. This high-level support enables PEBEC’s execution of new mandates or partnership with public and private stakeholders, with whom PEBEC identifies reform priorities. The VP and PEBEC’s endorsements give reform initiatives their legitimacy.

Seong: You’ve emphasized the importance of PEBEC’s position under the Vice President as a key driver for reforms. Beyond legislative enforcement, how else does PEBEC motivate different government agencies to become more efficient?

Tolu: Collaboration, or inclusive stakeholder engagement, is PEBEC’s heartbeat. We prioritize forums where diverse stakeholders can come together to champion specific reforms and see the common benefits behind a single value proposition. Inclusive stakeholder engagement ensures that reforms can work even if you don’t have high-levels of political backing. For example, during the four-month design challenge, we brought together FIRS, the State Board of Internal Revenue, the government, and micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) from agribusiness, manufacturing, and technology sectors. Together, we tried to bring harmonization to the processes involved with tax identification numbers. If you determine what the common pain points are, then sell those pain points, then basically there’s value because someone is telling you and you can see for yourself that, “oh my God, I have this critical problem.” Then there’s incentive for them to solve the problem. This immersive process is a way for stakeholders to be part of the design. I would also say that public awareness campaigns also help highlight the importance of reforms because a lot of civil servants might not even know about these reforms.

Seong: You and Ifeanyi worked on two separate challenges as part of this collaboration (read blog part one for Ifeanyi’s response). Can you tell me about what your team worked on and the feedback you got on your solution during the pitch?

Tolu: The team that I led, which won the design challenge, proposed a unified online tax registration channel. The channel would be supported by real-time validation technology, which provides immediate feedback on the accuracy and integrity of the data that’s entered in for automatic generation of the Tax Identification Number (TIN). This solution would allow MSMEs to secure their TIN effortlessly and therefore, ease access to financial opportunities. On the flip side, the government would gain an increase in revenue for fiscal planning purposes.

Seong: Through the collaboration, what were some of the new insights you gained about best ways to innovate within government?

Tolu: The real game changer was when we started to co-design with the agency, FIRS. They brought the knowledge, skills and the experience relevant for understanding the critical tax-related pain points for MSMEs. By blending the expertise of both FIRS’ Digital Innovation Support Group (DISG) and PEBEC teams, we were able to have a more holistic perspective of the problem and create more effective solutions. MIT GOV/LAB’s Lean Governance Innovation Design (LGID) also provided a helpful step-by-step framework that allowed us to think systematically about ideating and selecting a problem that would be groundbreaking for everybody, including the government, if solved. Finally, having buy-in from high-level officials was the “underlying magic” in showcasing the feasibility of our solution. The collaboration illuminated the potency of co-designing with both users and government agencies to tailor solutions that truly resonate with everyone.

Above: Tolu and the PEBEC Team attend a workshop session facilitated by Designer-Researcher, Federico Vaz. Photo via PEBEC.

Seong: What were some challenges during this process? Do any of those challenges mirror broader constraints that your team or Nigerian civil servants face when seeking to redesign governance?

Tolu: The most significant hiccup we faced was when the Designer-Researcher had to be pulled out of Nigeria due to a security alert. While quite disruptive, we were able to quickly turn in-person stakeholder engagement workshops into virtual meetings to receive constructive feedback throughout the co-design process. 

When thinking more generally about typical challenges the PEBEC Secretariat faces, I would say the trust deficit that exists between government agencies. They tend to work in silos and there is a lack of synergy. For example, for the winning solution to be successful, we need government agencies to share relevant data, which isn’t the norm. Fortunately, we presented the solution to the former VP who endorsed it, which will encourage the relevant agency to share the required data with FIRS. This will enable successful implementation of the solution. Political will plays a huge role in backing up this initiative. It is important to note that the recent change in administration slowed down the implementation of the winning solution. Plans are underway to bring the new VP up to speed and move our prototype along.

Seong: What do you see as the future of governance innovation in Nigeria? What recommendations would you have for other government teams who wish to innovate or collaborate to improve governance?

Tolu: Enforcing legislation wields significant impact on the behavior of civil servants, as well as design thinking which can incentivize behavioral shifts. For example, by using design thinking, governments can listen to civil servants’ experiences, identify their challenges firsthand, and create user-friendly tools and efficient systems.

Performance-based recognition can be another powerful way to motivate civil servants. For example, at the annual PEBEC Awards event, the VP bestows accolades on individuals and teams who’ve done the most towards improving business-enabling environments. Similarly, the subnational progress reports annually rank states based on how well they’ve improved ease of doing business standards. Both the PEBEC Awards and annual reports validate individuals and state-wide actors in their persistence in innovating towards open governance. 

To further support reform implementation, each agency nominates and supports Reform Champions to lead business reforms at the federal and subnational levels. We found that leveraging and supporting these individuals were key to ensuring success of reforms within their respective ministries and agencies. 

In essence, the combination of legislative enforcement, design thinking principles, performance-based incentives, and the nurturing of reform champions creates a supportive ecosystem within which civil servants can transform behavior and commit to ongoing innovation and progress.

Headshot: PEBEC

Cover Photo: Namnso Ukpanah  via Unsplash.