Two months ago, this column was devoted to a discussion of the scandal at the General Services Administration and the lessons that it might hold. The main point was that the problems uncovered at the federal agency serve as a reminder about the importance of due diligence in the management of public resources in general and contracts more specifically. If the management problems at GSA help other organizations apply better practices, then at least something positive comes from this unfortunate experience.
The scandal over GSA's lavish Las Vegas conference seems to be having another effect, however, and one substantially less positive. It involves the chilling effect that such a high-profile, highly questionable expenditure of funds may exert on training and development activities for government agencies. This effect may be compounded in an era of budgetary stringency. An early indicator of this came in May, when Jeffrey Zients, director of the Office of Management and Budget, announced that every federal agency would be required to spend 30 percent less on travel in fiscal year 2013 and to maintain that level of travel spending through FY 2016. Agencies are scrambling to establish procedures to comply with these new strictures.
Training and development and travel are not synonymous, and in an era of large federal deficits travel is one of many areas where less money could be spent. In highly dispersed agencies, however, T&D (whether individual or team) often requires travel. Particularly for agencies that are geographically dispersed and/or rely on highly specialized talent, travel restrictions may well mean cutting back on T&D. Historically, T&D is among the first activities to get cut in times of budgetary challenges. This has been true across the private and public sectors, so there is every reason to believe that public managers are excising T&D from their budgets as you read this.
Training results in skill-building. Development, a broader concept, enhances competencies (and may incorporate skill-building). Both are essential for maintaining capable, motivated and productive human-capital assets. Underinvesting in human capital is shortsighted, given its defining role in effectiveness. This is particularly true with government's looming retirements, poor public image, declining resources and changing performance requirements all putting pressure on personnel across all levels of government.
The Zients directive just adds a political challenge to a preexisting budgetary one. Managers may hesitate to implement T&D, but effectiveness requires managers to ensure sufficient investment in human capital to accomplish agency mission. There is evidence out there about how to accomplish this within a framework of sufficient due diligence.
Be clear about the purpose. A conference can be defined as "a meeting to confer about a topic." On the face of it, conferences don't pass the T&D return smell test, right? The public certainly didn't need federal property managers building bicycles in Las Vegas. But what if employees are biochemists or nuclear engineers? Doesn't the public benefit from having these experts conferring with their peers and keeping abreast of current knowledge? What is a responsible organization to do?
• Articulate a clear logic about T&D's relation to mission and challenges.
• Assess the timing and utility of events based on evidence of performance needs and results. Some events will prove timely and essential; others will prove discretionary. If they're discretionary, they should be delayed in times of budget stringency.
• Call it what it is — whether motivational/team building, training or strategy development. Sound human-capital investments can make or break a unit's ability to deliver on its mission.
• Manage access and apply least-cost-for-return analysis. Not every employee merits the same level of investment. Apply standards of need and performance. Invest — just do it responsibly, and document logic and returns.
Apply known best practices in T&D. A substantial body of knowledge exists about how to promote effective team dynamics, develop leaders and generally train adult learners. Ensure that programs take advantage — and make a business case for specific applications — of this knowledge.
• Conduct needs analyses. Use evidence to make investment decisions and prioritize across competing needs. Know the real needs: don't be led by products.
• Detail learning/performance objectives at individual and unit levels. Articulate how the planned event relates to unmet/evolving development needs.
• Assess learning/development outcomes for each event. Evaluations provide immediate feedback: carefully designed and applied metrics can reveal the degree of transfer to the workplace.
People constitute a critical resource for most organizations. The way to maximize this crucial human capital is to invest wisely, not to stop investing in it. Rather than halting, or even substantially curtailing, spending on T&D, public managers should apply standards of due diligence. Results might have been different if GSA's leaders had possessed more well-developed competencies — something a data-based leader-development program assessing both positive and dark-side leader behaviors might have caught.
The bathwater may need to go, but the baby is the future. Keep it, and invest in it.