Training Wheels

Most states can't tell you, with any authority, how much agencies spend on training or how wisely they spend it.

Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene

Katherine and Richard are Governing columnists with expertise in government management. Their website is

When state managers talk about the challenges that confront them, one topic comes up time and again: balancing the power of central state offices with that of agencies. In information technology, for example, states are winning a battle to get agencies to think of themselves as part of a larger entity--not as independent fiefdoms. In the age of the Internet, maintaining a computer system that can't easily share information with others defies common sense.

Thus, it's ironic that one of the last really significant bastions of decentralization--even in otherwise centralized states--is the training of employees. Central human resource offices tend to provide training about managing human resources: how to do a performance evaluation, say, or how to avoid a sexual harassment suit. But agencies take care of the job-oriented training. This latter effort is as significant a role of well-managed government as is buying computer systems. No state would let agencies spend money on computers without reporting the dollar amount to the budget office. Yet that's precisely the situation when it comes to agency training. Most states simply can't tell you, with any authority, how much is being spent on training in the agencies or how wisely it's being spent.

Don't misunderstand. We don't have any problems with the fact that the majority of training in most states is conducted at the agency level; in fact, that's probably a good thing. Agencies are far more conversant with the special needs of their employees than are statehouse personnel chiefs. The real issue is the infrequency with which the central personnel office has any idea how much--if any-- training is taking place out there.

We'd argue that the mantra should be "trust, but verify."

The first step, of course, is for the agencies themselves to figure out how much they are spending on training. Surprisingly, they often just don't know the answer. As Dan Fausset, manager for selection, recruitment and training in Wyoming, told us recently, "For budgeting purposes, training is one of the areas that falls through the cracks. We all realize that training is important, but a lot of agencies aren't successful in planning and budgeting for that training."

Joseph Hickey, who holds a similar position in Delaware, says that in his state, accurate figures are sometimes hard to track because agencies don't consistently code the dollars spent. If an employee goes to a conference, sometimes it's considered travel and sometimes it's counted as training. This isn't uncommon. In fact, there are a number of places where the two accounting codes are commingled: Travel and training are one item in the budget. So, sending someone to Washington, D.C., to lobby in favor of a bill winds up in the same pile as sending someone out of state to get trained in strategic planning.

Of course, there may be a reason why some agency heads simply don't want to break out their training budgets clearly. When money is tight, legislators often turn to training dollars as the first thing to cut; after all, there's no powerful taxpayer constituency that's going to show up at the statehouse with placards demanding "More Training."

So managers fear that sticking all the training dollars in one clear line item could be an invitation for budgeters to pull out the sharp knives. "We haven't convinced the citizens and the legislature that having a good employee means providing good training and development," says John Lopez, state personnel director in Michigan. "It's a tough sell."

It's also likely that the extreme decentralization of training means some states are likely spending more on training than they need to. When a variety of agencies are offering a similar training program, for instance, they can be consolidated, thus saving dollars for all.

Meanwhile, training has never been more important. With low unemployment rates, states are having an increasingly difficult time hiring enough good employees, particularly in areas such as information technology. Legislators who don't grasp the importance of training are going to find themselves dealing with programs that fall apart for lack of sufficiently educated staff.

Managers aren't oblivious to all this, of course, and many are beginning to take steps. In Colorado, a task force was convened to look at accessibility of training to all state workers. A survey was initiated of individual department executive directors asking how much was spent per employee on training. "An effort is under way to standardize workplace job-skills training statewide," says one official there. Perhaps most important, in a growing number of states, centralized human resource computer systems are capable of tracking training at the agency level, in a way that was technologically impossible in the past.

Of course, legislators and executive branch officials who want to continue to ignore the significance of centrally mandating adequate training can just hope the economy falls apart. Then there'll be lots of good workers looking for jobs. On the other hand, they won't have enough money to hire them.


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