The need to train productively and continuously

Having written for nine months about children, I thought of moving to another topic that seems to me equally important in the current context. It is also possibly of greater topical interest. And though I believe the care of children is of crucial significance, and that we must do better in this regard to promote development as well as equity in this country, I think the better deployment of the armed forces would also help us immeasurably to achieve these goals.

I say this because we are faced with a terrible crisis of administration in this country. I have been exploring elsewhere, and will continue to do so, how we can make our administration more responsive as well as more effective, but I think we also need for this purpose to look at best practices that can be replicated. In Sri Lanka we find that only amongst the armed forces.

Former Foreign Secretary Palikakkara, in talking at a recent Liberal Party seminar on political reform, mentioned – perhaps in defence of the recent obvious incompetence of his former Ministry – that if foreign policy is ailing, it’s no different to decay in governance generally. I think this is correct, and that all branches of the government suffer from inadequate training and insufficient attention to thinking and planning skills – as well as our failure to demand that reports be written and monitoring of activities be systematic.

I recently found – or had thrust in my place – two obvious examples of our failures with regard to training and planning. One of the new graduate trainees in the North said that government was wasting their time while not giving them enough to do, which another said they had not received adequate training, and were not properly briefed about what they should do.

More startlingly, when we were considering, at the Parliamentary Consultative Committee on Justice, the report of the Judges’ Training Institute, which the Minister said was much improved, we found no mention at all of basic training courses for new entrants to the judiciary. In the Committee was one of the brightest of the new Parliamentarians, Mr Janaka Bandara, who had been a magistrate himself, and he described to us the inadequacies of the training he had received when he took up a judicial appointment.

The exception to this sorry state of affairs regarding training is the military, and in particular the army, which has continuous training as well as entrenched accountability mechanisms. This I think explains why they have been about the most functional unit in government over the last decade. Given the enormous talent we do have in several places, better training, as well as the allocation of clearcut responsibilities as we have in the army, will surely make good people perform better in all official agencies, and enable at least some work to be got out of those who are not so good. 

I thought then initially of reworking the various lectures I have been delivering at seminars and workshops organized by the forces in various places. The number of training centres they have, at all levels, is indeed witness to their concern with personnel development. I cannot help recalling then the words of the senior police officials who served on the committee with regard to police improvement that I chaired when I headed the Peace Secretariat. They would accuse me of being biased in favour of the army, when I contrasted their own comparatively bad record with regard to Human Rights, and say that I had no conception of how their training programmes had suffered during years of emergency – whereas the army’s training centres had received all they needed.

Things are better now with the police, after the new IGP took over, though I fear that regular changes of personnel will prevent continuity of improvement. I was delighted to find for instance that the officer I had worked with five years ago, DIG Lalith Jayasinghe, a dedicated and extremely thoughtful Director of Training, was back in that area after the previous IGP had abruptly transferred him to a far away station. Unfortunately I gather that he has once again been transferred and, though I hope his successor – or his successor’s successor, given the rapidity of change – will be as dedicated, it would be much more sensible if people doing a good job were allowed to continue in harness for at least a few years. As it is, the excellent relationships he had built with partners such as the Colombo University Centre for the Study of Human Rights will not be easily replicated.

That factor is another element that needs to be considered, namely the requirement to look outward when devising training schemes and modes of operation. Because military officers work in English, best practice elsewhere is readily accessible to them. This is not always the case with public officials. I still recall how, about a decade ago, the efforts of the Sri Lanka Institute of Development Administration to conduct introductory training for new SLAS recruits were defeated when the trainees protested. Only one group was willing to continue in English, and they are now the cream of the administration, as I realized when I came across many of them in the Presidential Secretariat. But their colleagues who are less capable of adjusting to changing circumstances are in the majority, and will I fear prove a critical mass to stymie the reforms we need.

I would argue then that the forces should play a much greater role in training of public servants, both regular recruits and the graduate trainees who are so problematic now, despite the capacity some of them display. And the forces should also be involved in regular refresher courses to develop thinking skills as well as the capacity to solve problems and make decisions and, above all, work in teams.

The Island 29 March 2013 –