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but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done

The third area in which Mahinda Samarasinghe decided that radical change was necessary in the vocational training sector was with regard to industry involvement. This was obviously essential in that there was no point in training youngsters for work if employers thought their training was inadequate. But there had been no concerted effort previously to involve businesses in developing curricula and in providing guidance to trainers.

The sector had benefited vastly from World Bank and Asian Development Bank projects in the preceding period, but there seemed little practical progress despite all the money that had been poured in. Of course several buildings had been put up, and several studies done at vast expense, but little effort had been made to ensure that the recommendations of these studies were carried out. Thus, any study one looked at indicated that soft skills, and in particular English communication capacity, were lacking in trainees, but nothing had been done about this. And no one had bothered to point out to the VTA that they could not expect their students to learn English if they had hardly any English teachers – 22 I think for 245 centres at the beginning of this year, with some of them hardly knowing English.

Many courses had very few students but no efforts had been made to understand the reasons for this or increase enrolment. Soon after I started work I found that Rs 30 million had been spent on what was termed social marketing, but no coherent system had been put in place to check on the impact on the campaign. When I pointed this out, I was asked by the head of the Sector Skills Development Project, which administered the funds, to chair the Committee that was supposed to deal with Social Marketing and Career Guidance. I think he saw this as his only hope of productive action, and further investigation indicated that indeed nothing practical had been done previously. Their plans for instance included no reference to social media, which first principles would have indicated could have been a major instrument of getting messages across to the young. And though the two subjects had sensibly enough been combined for the committee, hardly anything had been done about Career Guidance, except a workshop after which it was claimed that a model sector had been set up in Ratnapura. The impact expected of this model was not on record, and there had been no follow up to check on what it was doing. When I suggested this needed investigation, the Ministry finally visited the place and discovered that very little was going on.Until I took over at the TVEC, it seemed to have been completely forgotten that each Division had, or was supposed to have, what was termed a Skills Development Officer. I had realized, during my visits to the North and East when I was advising the former President with regard to Reconciliation, that these officials had little understanding of what they should be doing, and that there were no practical reporting mechanisms. I  had suggested then to the Secretary to the Ministry of Public Administration, as part of my attempt to introduce greater coherence to work in Divisional Secretariats, that they should be part of the Development Team in each Division. That initiative had collapsed when the silly season of elections started, but I had hoped that we could move in the light of the commitment, which I had introduced into the President’s manifesto, that the Division be the focal point for service delivery. Sadly Karu Jayasuriya, who was Minister of Public Administration, did nothing in his anxiety to stay safe, and the opportunity offered by the commitment to structural reform in the manifesto was lost.

When I took over at the TVEC I suggested to Mahinda Samarasinghe that  he should call the Skills Development Officers to Colombo to find out what could be done, and the Ministry then woke up to their existence and summoned them to a meeting at the end of last year. But sadly there was no follow up until I brought the matter up again a few months later, after I had realized that the SSDP committee had no dealings with them at all. Then the Ministry decided that they should have done some work, as we had decided in December, on the training these officers needed, and it has now managed to have one programme for the purpose.

But little was done about the coordination that is necessary. Fortunately the Ministry has now granted us permission to work with the SDOs for the purpose of checking on centres in their Divisions, and I hope through this to also establish connections with the District Career Guidance Centres that we have now set up. These were intended to promote joint programmes by the Vocational Training Authority, the Department of Technical Education and Training and the National Apprenticeship and Industrial Training Authority. Previously they had all engaged in their own Career Guidance programmes, understanding by this only disseminating information to potential recruits about the courses they themselves conducted.

The idea that they should work together had never occurred to them, and indeed I found examples of students moving from one centre to another, when they thought a particular course in the same subject was more appealing at another agency. Time duration was an important factor in this regard, but the importance of this, and adjusting courses to practical requirements, had not occurred to the authorities. This was largely because, until Mahinda Samarasinghe allowed the TVEC to exercise the authority it possessed under the relevant Act, there had been no coordination.

It was perhaps just as well that the SSDP committee had not checked on whether their expensive publicity campaign had produced results at the beginning of this year. The advertising had been entrusted to a firm that was amateur in its approach, and produced material that was both ungrammatical and unconvincing. But since a substantial amount of money had been spent, SSDP seemed quite happy, given that they were concerned only with outputs, not actual outcomes. I suspect several of those in charge of activities did not understand the difference, as in the case of the officer in charge of Human Resources Development who looked at me as though I were mad when I asked what had been done by those who had attended the training workshops they had conducted. Reporting was of the number of workshops conducted, not of any changes that had happened as a result.

I found a similar problem last week with the National Human Resources Development Council, a meeting of which I finally managed to attend, having been deeply depressed by its minutes. It seemed concerned more with process than productivity, and at its last meeting dodged the question I had sent in about the need for educational reform if the capacity of our students was not to continue being destroyed by the current school system. They decided to pass the problem on to the National Education Commission, but thankfully Lakshman Jayatilleke, the experienced chairman of the latter, had put the matter on the NHRDC agenda last week. And fortunately the Chairman, one of Ranil’s acolytes but it seems more practical and sensible than Ranil, was willing to discuss the issues we raised. With luck the sub-committee he decided to set in place will ensure action rather than endless reports and training without assessable goals. And they agreed that they should at least try to find out what was being done about those they had trained – and also to draw up some basic requirements with regard to the public officials whom they claimed they had trained to do better.

Of a piece with all this concentration on processes rather than results was the manner in which SSDP had implemented the decision, in itself eminently sensible, to set up Sector Skills Councils. The project documents, symptomatic about what I have always found the essentially irresponsible approach of the World Bank and the ADB between them, had very different ideas about the number of Councils to be set up and the timelines, but in any case these were irrelevant because the Ministry had only managed to set up one by the end of last year.

Mahinda Samarasinghe was having none of this, and made it very clear that he expected all four that had been planned to be established by January. This did not quite happen, but three are now up and running. The fourth, for Tourism and Hospitality, continues messy, not least because the project managers managed to set up a committee that had no hoteliers on it. Given that the vast majority of jobs in the tourism sector are in hotels, this seemed illogical, but logic was not a strong point with the SSDP.

Fortunately the World University Service of Canada, which had begun working in this sector – though for obvious reasons not closely with the Ministry, a factor that has now changed since they find the new Secretary, Mr Ranepura, a breath of fresh air, and capable of conceptualization and practical inputs – introduced me to Chandra Mohotti, who was assisting them with the work in tourism they were doing in the Eastern Province.

Mohotti was a senior executive with the Galle Face Group, and obviously understood the sector very well. He was full of good ideas, and also impressed the Minister. So SSDP, finally understanding I think how amateur its approach had been previously, persuaded him to accept the Chairmanship of the Council – which he had known nothing about earlier, since SSDP had it seemed not studied whom they should contact when setting up the Council.

Last year the Minister insisted too that TVEC be involved in the Councils. We had been left out earlier, though when I pointed out to the SSDP officer who administered the project that this was ridiculous, given our mandate under the legislation that governed the sector, he said that he had advised the then Minister accordingly. But the advice had been ignored until Mahinda Samarasinghe, who actually bothers to read his briefs and work out what is necessary, insisted on us being involved.

But at the beginning I was still hopeful that I could, as I had indicated was my understanding of my position, work part time, and so I had not got involved in the Councils, leaving this to the Directors of the TVEC who had been appointed to each of them. But it soon became clear that they did not have the authority to ensure productive action, and also that no one of the other officials involved had a clue about what was required. Rather they saw the Councils as simply fulfilling a requirement of the project, their basic function being to fulfil the functions laid down in the project document and thus ensure that the World Bank and the ADB would continue to disburse funds.

This became clear with regard to what was termed the Skills Gap Analysis Report which had been commissioned under the project. The contract had been awarded to a company called GreenTech that had reported on the four sectors for which Councils had been established, namely Construction, Information Technology, Manufacturing and Light Engineering and Tourism and Hospitality. But the report they produced was a mess, a cut and paste job in which they had sometimes failed to cut as required so that the name of one sector figured in the report on another, and some of the statistics they cited were the same across sectors.

Unfortunately I feel obliged to go through papers brought before me, and I read through this report as I had done through another ridiculous report which TVEC had commissioned, a Vocational Education and Training plan for the North Central Province, which was a hopeless mess. In that case TVEC was at fault, since it had commissioned the report and not provided proper guidance. When the problems were pointed out, the University which had produced the report did a much better job. In the case of the Skills Gap report, however, TVEC was not at fault in that I was told they had simply been required to rubber stamp the firm recommended by the Ministry.

It was again Mr Deshapriya who was responsible for this, though he denied responsibility when I wrote to him. He also claimed to have responded to my query about the British Council project, but we could not find this response and he ignored my request that he send it again. He denial was also obviously disingenuous because ILO told me that he was the person they had dealt with over the Skills Gap Report.

I had got in touch with ILO because my officers told me, when I told them they must have been mad to choose GreenTech, that they had been told that that firm had been recommended by ILO. But ILO hotly denied this and said they had specifically said the firm was not competent, and had recommended someone else. But Mr Deshapriya, with whom they had dealt, seemed to have failed to indicate this to the TVEC.

The frosting on the cake came when I told the ADB that I was appalled by what had happened, and they asked me if I too had heard that GreenTech had got the contract because of connections. I had not heard that story, but it did not surprise me, since I suspect that was the way in which Ministry officials had acted in the past. Certainly I was assured that Mr Deshapriya was an honest man, but I still felt, when GreenTech threatened to take us to court for not paying the residue on the contract – though they had failed to make even the simple changes they had agreed to when I pointed out the repetitive nature of their report – that I should ask the Secretary to the Treasury, who I presumed is now Mr Deshapriya’s line manager, that he should get responses to my queries, given also the financial implications of what had happened. But, I suppose typically, the Secretary to the Treasury has not as yet responded to my letter.

And despite the decision of the TVEC to report the matter to the Bribery Commissioner, the Ministry has decided that that should not be done. It is no wonder then, with there being so much determination not to rock the boat, that money is squandered.

Ceylon Today 5 Nov 2016 http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20161101CT20161231.php?id=8685

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