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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Monday, October 31, 2011

The future of public service training - Part V

Imagine yourself the Director of one of the Institutes I have been talking about…. There were periods last year when you didn’t have the cash to pay your staff. You’re not sure how long you’ll have in your position since both it and that of the Institute can be (and has been) affected by political vicissitudes. The only source of money is the European Union – but the bureaucracy is onerous and time-consuming; and the benefits not as obvious as might seem at first sight. None of the cash actually reaches the Institute – most of it goes to private companies and their contracted experts. What do you do in such a situation to try to ensure that the Institute’s activities actually help improve public services and are sustainable?
Most EC consultants would advise the Director to develop a strategic plan. That is to set up a process of identifying and consulting “stakeholders” to develop over several months a new “vision” and “action plan” which would carry with it a new “commitment” from those stakeholders to “make it happen”. I don’t mean to be cynical by the insertion of inverted commas – but I do have some questions about the belief that several months of such an exercise will magically produce an answer that no-one previously thought of or produce a new spirit of cooperation. The first thing I would actually recommend is some strong brainstorming for the Director with some experienced and trustworthy people – to try to identify some realistic options whose feasibility (s)he could then explore in a variety of ways – including a strategic exercise.
And if I were one of those with whom (s)he brainstormed, I would want to explore a central question -
What is the point of having a budget-supported national training centre for public officials?
Running courses is a means - not an end. The end is surely the improvement of state bodies. But this is not achieved by a series of ad-hoc workshops run by trainers who do not communicate with one another and who have no subsequent link with the participants. Of course, despite the claims of management consultants and management gurus, noone really understands the process of improving the performance of state bodies. To some it’s a question of leadership; to others teamwork; to others again, It’s competitive and/or citizen pressures; and to many politicians it’s a matter of targets, transparency and a mix of sticks and stones.

Several things, however, are clear for me –
• each country has its own cultures and needs to find its own way in its own language
• this requires a few experienced people to blaze a trail, providing ways of thinking about issues, presenting and interpreting relevant experience
• sometimes this can be an academic – but they generally have other agendas and an inaccessible language
• A training centre is ideally placed to bring senior managers together to share their experiences, encourage one another and formulate an agenda for strategic change
• A few suitable academics could be encouraged to participate in such sessions (good for their research) and co-produce Discussion papers

Of course this doesn’t immediately bring cash – and does demand time. But it’s time well spent – in building a reputation. It’s not easy to talk about cooperation between education and training institutes (not least because the terminological distinction is not as often made in central Europe as in the UK). The academics worry about a lowering of standards – and the trainers worry about opaque verbosity. But particularly in the field of public management, the distinction is a crazy one. I am not a fan of undergraduate courses in public management – they are shallow pot-pourris; they demonstrate little of value to subsequent employees (save perhaps that those who opted for the course have little ambition); and few who graduate actually go into public service. I think those who find themselves in academic positions teaching and (hopefully) researching public management would be better located in national training institutes – particularly if those institutes had a focus on senior management. I warned in part II that some academic cows would need to be sacrificed!

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