Christmas may still be 2 months away but one reputable blog has come with the sort of quiz we play at that time of the year - asking people “which book provides support, or is a book to which one often returns. And the answer cannot be the Bible”. As the participants in the subsequent discussion thread recognise, it’s not an easy question to answer. Most of our reading is novels and specialist stuff. There are, of course, classic novels (both old and new) to which we can and do return but several of the discussants say that it is poetry to which they go back – I would tend to agree. I often turn to TS Eliot, Bert Brecht, WS Graham and Norman MacCaig (sadly BBc doesn't allow me access this last), for example. What about my readers?
The European Union has spent many hundreds – if not thousands - of millions of euros on training of public servants in the accession states; in Eastern Europe and central Asia (and continues to do so in the Operational Programmes of its Structural Funds with which I am currently involved here in Bulgaria). Despite the European Commission emphasis on evaluation, I am not aware of any critical evaluation it has commissioned of that spending – nor of any guidelines it has issued to try to encourage good practice in this field of training public officials (It has issued, in recent years, guidelines on “good governance”, internal project monitoring, project cycle management, institutional assessment and capacity development, ex-ante evaluation). And, in particular, there is nothing available for those in transition countries who want to go beyond the task of managing one specific programme of training and actually build a system of training which has the key features of –
• Commitment to learning and improvement
A transition country is lucky if its officials and state bodies actually benefit from a training programme – with training needs being properly assessed; relevant and inspiring courses constructed; and delivered (by skilled trainers) in workshops which engage its participants and encourage them to do things differently in their workplace. Too often, many of these ingredients are missing. But, even if they are present, the programme is usually an ad-hoc one which fails to assist the wider system. The trainers disappear – often to the private sector; their training materials with them. No improvement takes place in the wider system of training public officials.
For 20 years now I have led public administration reform projects in a variety of “transition” countries in central Europe and central Asia – in which training and training the trainer activities have always been important elements. Initially I did what most western consultants tend to do – shared our “good practice” from western europe. But slowly – and mainly because I was no longer living in western Europe – I began to see how little impact all of this work was having. I summarised my assessment recently in the following way-
• Most workshops are held without sufficient preparation or follow-up. Workshops without these features are not worth holding.
• Training is too ad-hoc – and not properly related to the performance of the individual (through the development of core competences) or of the organisation
• Training, indeed, is often a cop-out – reflecting a failure to think properly about organisational failings and needs. Training should never stand alone – but always be part of a coherent package of development – whether individual or organisational.
• It is critical that any training intervention is based on “learning outcomes” developed in a proper dialogue between the 4 separate groups involved in any training system – the organisational leader, the training supplier, the trainer and the trainee. Too often it is the training supplier who sets the agenda.
• Too many programmes operate on the supply side – by running training of trainer courses, developing manuals and running courses. Standards will rise and training make a contribution to administrative capacity only if there is a stronger demand for more relevant training which makes a measurable impact on individual and organisational performance.
• In the first instance, this will require Human Resource Directors to be more demanding of training managers – to insist on better designed courses and materials; on proper evaluation of courses and trainers; and on the use of better trainers. More realistic guidelines and manuals need to be available for them
• Workshops should not really be used if the purpose is simply knowledge transfer. The very term “workshop” indicates that exercises should be used to ensure that the participant is challenged in his/her thinking. This helps deepen self-awareness and is generally the approach used to develop managerial skills and to create champions of change.
• Workshops have costs – both direct (trainers and materials) and indirect (staff time). There are a range of other learning tools available to help staff understand new legal obligations.
• HR Directors need to help ensure that senior management of state bodies looks properly at the impact of new legislation on systems, procedures, tasks and skills. Too many people seem to think that better implementation and compliance will be achieved simply by telling local officials what that new legislation says.
• A subject specialist is not a trainer. Too few of the people who deliver courses actually think about what the people in front of them actually already know.
• The training materials, standards and systems developed by previous projects are hard to find. Those trained as trainers – and companies bidding for projects – treat them, understandably as precious assets in the competitive environment in which they operate and are not keen to share them!
And this last point perhaps identifies one of the reasons why transition countries have found it so difficult to establish public training systems to match those in the older member states. From the beginning they were encouraged to base their systems on the competitive principle which older member states were beginning to adopt. Note the verb - "were beginning". And, of course, there is no greater zealot than a recent convert. So experts who had themselves learned and worked in systems subsidised by the state appeared in the east to preach the new magic of competition. And states with little money for even basic services were only too pleased to buy into that principle. The result is a black hole into which EU money has disappeared.
I will, in the next post, try to set out some principles for capacity development of public training systems in transition countries.
The photograph is of me at the communal table of Rozinski Monastery here in Bulgaria - taken a couple of year ago by my friend and colleague Daryoush Farsimadan, I think there is something appropriate there....