OVER A COFFEE: Billions going down the ‘capacity building’ drain—Dr Haider Shah
Training and development are vital for overall human resource management of an organisation and should always be informed by organisational objectives. Unfortunately, public sector organisations do not have the culture of treating human resource management in a holistic way
Capacity building is one of the most frequently used buzzwords of our public policy makers in Pakistan. It is an essential element of faith and you need to say it umpteen times to look progressive and educated. Starting with the notion of ‘institution building’ in the 1970s, the phrase became more common in the official discourse of international organisations in the 1990s. The UN and other donor bodies view capacity building as a pure public policy level issue. The central hypothesis is that since in the developing countries public sector managers lack public policy making skills, therefore, if they are sent on courses abroad they would be equipped with the required knowledge and skills and hence transform the economy on their return. One wishes the world was actually that simple.
Different organisation theorists have studied organisations by comparing them with other more understandable processes. For instance, system theorists see an organisation as a system where inputs are processed with a view to producing certain outputs. The cell theorists compare it with a cell where the organisation interacts with its environment; absorbing changes and radiating its influence. Whatever theoretical framework we may choose, one fact remains unchanged. Humans are the most important resource for improving processes and outputs associated with any organisation. Therefore, the emphasis placed on improving skills and capacity of employees is not without merit.
The advocates of capacity building programmes, however, fail to take into account an obvious ground reality in the public sector management of developing countries such as Pakistan. Like Plato’s ideal republic, the public sector in Pakistan in particular, and developing countries in general, is characterised by the presence of three distinct classes. The top level echelon of many important organisations comes from the ruling elite comprising politicians and retired big guns of the military establishment. Then there is the middle level management that often belongs to the middle classes and uses its knowledge and skills to rise up the ladder. And finally we have at the bottom the workers class, which comes mostly from the lower middle sections of society. In Pakistan, ‘capacity building’ programmes have traditionally focused upon the middle level management employed in the civil services. But the question is whether the panacea has really worked. If, despite spending billions of dollars on capacity building programmes, we see little actual change in the quality of services provided to the recipients, there must be something fundamentally wrong with the whole framework of these programmes.
The noticeable absence of any meaningful change can be explained on account of two main factors. First, since the heads of majority of public sector organisations are appointed on a political basis, they bring along their own notions of good management. Such bigwigs often believe in top down approach and their reforms usually disappear when they exit the scene. Secondly, the fatal weakness of capacity building is that such programmes have taken little notice of the importance of operational level staff. With meagre subsistence level salaries and a poor knowledge base, the operational level employees suffer from very low level of motivation. There is a wide body of research that correlates organisational performance with stress and motivation of the operational level staff. The capacity of our public sector organisations can, therefore, not be improved if we are unable to improve the working conditions and knowledge base of our operational level staff. Annually, billions are spent on funded foreign tours of our stiff neck officers. Instead, the focus should have been on improving core skills-related capabilities of the field and operational level staff. All officials employed in the public sector organisations need to be properly trained in essential skills like IT, literacy, numeracy and customer focus.
In order to ensure maximum outcomes-based effectiveness of their programmes, it is suggested to the donor organisations that they should attach the following conditions to their capacity building programmes: 1) The recipient organisation must conduct a proper training needs analysis (TNA) and then identify courses that can provide such skills. 2) To ensure value for money, foreign institutions should only be considered if such courses are not locally available. 3) A bigger proportion of the funds, say 60 percent should be used for enhancing public services delivery skills of operational level staff. Such officials interact with the public in general, therefore, they should be sent abroad on short courses so that they are exposed to ‘how can I help you?’ working culture.
Training and development are vital for overall human resource management of an organisation and should always be informed by organisational objectives. Unfortunately, public sector organisations do not have the culture of treating human resource management in a holistic way. The donors should, therefore, compel our public sector organisations to first outline their core organisational objectives and then carry out a proper TNA to fill the capacity gap. Capacity building should, thus, be a part of overall organisational strategy. Unfortunately, while in theory capacity building programmes have very noble objectives, in practice such programmes end up becoming a paid holiday bonanza for our government officers. They return and resume their old jobs with little utilisation of the newly acquired knowledge. Perhaps the only usage of such qualifications is that they sit glamorously on their CVs, which they use in their pursuit for alternative service careers or postings at major world bodies like the World Bank and the UN.
Public services delivery has undergone a tremendous change in the developed world. It is high time we learnt lessons from their experience. One leap in that direction would be to accord due importance to the operational level staff of our public sector organisations. Redesigning our capacity building programmes along this principle would go a long way in improving the quality of public services delivered by our public sector organisations.
The writer teaches in the UK and is the founding member of Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org