Public Sector Training Re-Imagined
Kenneth Sim, Dean of the Chandler Academy of Governance, argues that in a world of existential challenges, public services need a greater commitment and a more radical approach to training.
Even as the world moves on from the pandemic, we still face a plethora of complex and seemingly intractable challenges that stand in the way of human flourishing. These include rebuilding battered economies, addressing deepening inequality and weakening social mobility, mitigating and adapting to climate change, and ensuring that basic yet critical services such as healthcare and education reach the intended beneficiaries.
It is not possible to solve these problems without governments playing an active and constructive role. Governments can harness and channel public resources to meet important outcomes in a way other organisations cannot. They can help to align objectives and coordinate the actions of various stakeholders by setting laws and the rules of the game. Finally, they can invest — or enable investment — in basic infrastructure.
All Governments Must Invest in Their Employees
The responsibilities placed on governments are enormous and the stakes are high. Yet, when we talk about supporting governments, we often talk about capacity alone. It is indeed important for governments to be adequately resourced to carry out their critical functions. Sermons about public sector reform and improvements in government services can ring hollow without adequate resources for implementation.
Just as important are capabilities — by which I mean the skills and knowledge that public servants need to fulfil the important roles that they have been charged with. The latest edition of the Chandler Good Government Index (CGGI), which was developed by the Chandler Institute of Governance (CIG) to measure the capabilities and effectiveness of more than 100 governments, provides two key insights in this area.
First, governments with strong capabilities also tend to deliver better outcomes in areas such as education and healthcare. Second, while there is indeed a correlation between government capabilities and national wealth, there are also some outliers such as Rwanda, which score well on several elements of their capabilities despite having a lower gross domestic product (GDP) per capita. Put together, this is a clarion call for governments, regardless of their economic position, to invest in capability-building.
While there is indeed a correlation between government capabilities and national wealth, there are also some outliers such as Rwanda, which score well on several elements of their capabilities despite having a lower gross domestic product (GDP) per capita. - Kenneth Sim
Developing Capabilities Through Training
Unfortunately, when we talk about capability development, there is often too much faith placed in individuals learning by themselves and/or learning on the job. This is framed by the widely accepted “70-20-10” rule, which stipulates that 70% of learning is done on the job, 20% through developmental relationships, such as mentorship and through observation of those around you, and a mere 10% through formal coursework and training.
Putting so much faith in the serendipity of learning is dangerous — the fear is not only that individual public servants may not learn, but also that they learn the wrong lessons. In addition, relying on informal training mistakenly assumes that the right learning opportunities will always be there, and that every individual has the aptitude and ability to draw out the right lessons.
This is where National Government Training Institutions (NGTIs) must step in. NGTIs take different forms and have varying foci depending on their context. Many are explicitly part of the government with a statutory mandate to support public sector training, while others may be run as private or autonomous organisations. Broadly, their mandate is to collaborate with government organisations to codify tacit skills and knowledge, and curate learning experiences that help public servants to internalise and apply new skills and knowledge.
The Challenges We Face
There are some common challenges that keep NGTIs from effectively discharging their responsibilities.
The first challenge relates to inadequate commitment. Developing and sustaining a strong training ecosystem requires political will and commitment; however, this is an area of government that can be poorly resourced. Indeed, training budgets were the first to be cut among OECD countries during the 2008 financial crisis. The same story is likely unfolding right now, as governments are recovering from COVID-19 with tighter fiscal envelopes.
Strong training outcomes also require commitment from the individual taking part. Unfortunately, a common lament from NGTI leaders is that individual public servants do not always see the value in training, which can manifest itself in the form of poor attendance at training programmes and disengaged learners.
The second challenge is ensuring that curriculums reflect the skills and knowledge required for the job. While NGTIs in many jurisdictions do engage public servants and government agencies to uncover skills gaps, not all have institutionalised competency frameworks to help NGTIs align training programmes with current skills needs. Another dimension to this challenge is an inadequate focus on application in training. Too much time and effort is still spent imparting the “what” and the “why” instead of the “how”. Without this, the lessons learnt may not accurately reflect practical realities around policy design and implementation.
The third challenge relates to pedagogy. The public sector training ecosystem has come some way from the days when it was solely about the didactic download of material through a lecture format. At the very least, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many NGTIs to experiment with online learning tools and platforms. Yet, as a sector, we have not even begun to scratch the surface of pedagogical innovations that enhance engagement and will enable us to more effectively cater to different learners.
These challenges are related and unfortunately reinforce each other. Poor alignment of training with the skills required blunts the impetus for training, and a lack of pedagogical innovation can damage the learner’s experience and understanding. Combined, these can weaken the commitment of individual public servants to attend training, and of the government to invest resources into further developing public sector training. We end up with a vicious circle that becomes difficult to break.
Re-imagining Public Sector Training
There is scope to seriously re-imagine what public sector training can look like. While the path ahead is challenging, we can learn from several subtle and important shifts that have already been taking place in the broader higher education and training landscape.
Re-imagining lifelong learning: First, we need to see training not as a discrete activity, taking place at periodic intervals and in an ad hoc manner, but as a set of learning experiences that match the competency requirements at each stage of a person’s career. This mirrors the increasing emphasis on lifelong learning globally, as technological disruptions, digitalisation, and other broader trends rapidly reshape the future of work.
In practice, this means more deliberately mapping competency requirements at different levels and designing leadership training courses that are tied to practitioners’ needs at specific career milestones. This is already done for mid- to senior-level public service leaders in many countries, such as the U.K. and Canada. At CAG, we designed and delivered a 12-month long Public Service Emerging Leaders Fellowship Programme, focused on early-career public service leaders, with our partners in Kenya.
It also means changing the way in which training is delivered. We need a greater focus on briefer modules that, like bricks, can either stand alone effectively or be combined with others in different ways as part of a fuller learning structure. This is more suitable for busy working adults who often cannot take extended leave for training. These modules can also be delivered just-in-time and based on the learners’ skills needs at that stage.
Re-imagining pedagogy: Second, we need to actively explore and adopt a broader suite of pedagogical tools beyond the tried and tested model of classroom lectures in order to more flexibly cater to different learner profiles. Part of this involves harnessing educational technology to massively scale up learning without necessarily compromising quality and ease of learning. For example, asynchronous learning allows participants to learn on their own time and at their own pace, which is particularly well suited for learners in full-time jobs.
Too much time and effort is still spent imparting the “what” and the “why” instead of the “how”. Without this, the lessons learnt may not accurately reflect practical realities around policy design and implementation. - Kenneth Sim
Beyond educational technologies, there are also other useful pedagogical tools that can, if suitably adopted, enhance the learning experience. For example, the use of appropriate case studies can make abstract principles more concrete and help to situate learning within the national or regional context. Tools such as policy gaming and role playing can help learners to apply and internalise what was taught in an engaging way.
Deploying pedagogical innovations is not costless, but nor does it need to be inordinately expensive. For example, there are many cost-effective plug-and-play software options that effectively facilitate online learning development. What is important, however, is to develop capabilities for staff and faculty to innovate across the pedagogical spectrum comfortably and confidently.
Re-imagining the work-training continuum: Finally, and most important of all, we will need to re-imagine what training means at its very core, by embracing the concept that work and training are actually two complementary activities that take place along a continuum. Only by dismantling the artificial divide between training in “the classroom” and in the workplace can we ensure the practical relevance of training.
A few years ago, I had the privilege of visiting a small family-run factory in Switzerland to study its apprenticeship system. The company took in apprentices, who spent a few days each week taking classes at a vocational institution and the rest of the time applying what they learnt in the workplace. The curriculum was designed by the training institutions and validated by the industry association together with the Government to ensure that learning was work relevant and that there was buy-in from all the parties involved. In the workplace, apprentices were assigned mentors who guided them based on the assigned curriculum. Assessment was done in both the workplace and the classroom.
Replicating such a system throughout public services globally may not be feasible. There are some unique historical and socio-cultural factors in places such as Switzerland that make it work. However, the underlying principle is that there must be continual and close dialogue between the training institutions and the industry to codify which skills are needed, to coordinate the learning that takes place across different settings and to jointly implement training.
There are some immediate implications of this in the area of public sector training. For a start, there should be better coordination between NGTIs and the government organisations they support, to develop competency frameworks that can form the backbone of curriculum development. In addition, the curriculum would need to be more practitioner-oriented. While many NGTIs do engage current and past practitioners to conduct training, more can be done to promote practice-based curricula, and to help practitioners hone their pedagogical skills to support effective curriculum development and delivery.
Consider the scale and scope of the challenges we face and it becomes clear that there is an urgent need to build capabilities within the public service to ensure it can respond accordingly. - Kenneth Sim
Programme design can also evolve to reflect the fluidity of the work-training continuum. For example, the Singapore Civil Service College has developed an innovative year-long leadership programme, which is divided into several “stretches” that are each framed by different learning themes. Participants go through curated short modular courses, leadership coaching, and facilitated peer group discussions at designated periods that punctuate these stretches. They continue to work during the “stretches”, where they can immediately apply what they have learnt.
The Way Ahead
Consider the scale and scope of the challenges we face and it becomes clear that there is an urgent need to build capabilities within the public service to ensure it can respond accordingly. NGTIs play a critical role in this regard, and must push boundaries in making training more responsive to skills needs and more engaging for learners. Equally importantly, political leaders need to show the will and commitment to support NGTIs in this vital effort.
Chandler Academy of Governance
The Chandler Academy of Governance (CAG) was established in 2021 as the training arm of CIG. Its training programmes are practitioner-oriented and focus on codifying international good practice and tailoring it to the local context. CIG works closely with former and current government leaders, subject matter experts and specialists in training design and delivery.
CAG’s curriculum focuses on good national governance, which is defined by three pillars — leadership as national stewardship, effective government organisations and systems, and policy design and implementation. CAG adopts a range of pedagogical techniques, such as workshops, learning journeys, policy games and self-paced online learning. Together, this helps CAG to improve learner engagement, improve understanding and adapt to different learning needs.
CAG has delivered training programmes in collaboration with government partners across the globe, including Vietnam, India, Singapore, the Philippines, Zambia, Kenya and Costa Rica.
As Dean of the Chandler Academy of Governance, Kenneth sets its strategic direction and oversees the design and delivery of its training programmes. Kenneth is an experienced practitioner with more than
15 years of experience in the Singapore Public Service, where he was formerly Special Assistant to the Deputy Prime Minister.