An agenda to enhance the sustainability of the Centre and ILO ownership
My first visit to the Turin campus dates back to 1961… The pavilions that now host the ILO training centre were built to celebrate the first centennial of Italy’s unity through an international exhibition in the first capital city of the country. I was four years old then, but I still remember taking a ride on the monorail and watching a movie on ancient Romans and Egyptians in the Cinerama.
As I grew up in Turin, it seemed obvious to me – a couple of decades later, when I graduated in labour economics – to call the Turin Centre’s switchboard and ask what I should do to get a job there. The operator politely explained to me that there was nothing I could do.
However, you cannot fight against destiny. In early 1986 I joined the ILO and since then I spent in Turin altogether thirteen of my thirty years with the Organization. Having worked in Turin as well as at ILO headquarters and field offices, I feel in a privileged position to better understand the turbulent love story between the Office and its training centre.
The Centre is a tool that no other UN organization has. Every year it reaches out to thousands of policy-makers, managers, practitioners and trainers from ILO constituents and partners all over the world. As such, it is a unique platform to disseminate and validate ILO policies, standards and approaches with a large audience beyond the regular activities of the ILO.
In practice, however, this is not happening enough. One problem relates to blurred roles and responsibilities. On one hand, ILO technical cooperation has progressively withdrawn from direct implementation and increasingly focused on institutional capacity development. On the other hand, training has been gradually moving away from the classroom and into the workplace, with the introduction of experiential and distance learning. The ensuing overlap between training and technical assistance often generated misunderstandings or competition between the Office and the Centre.
In addition, the institutional and legal set-up of the Turin Centre is in itself a recipe for complication. The Centre is a “controlled entity” of the ILO with its own legal personality, governance, staff and budget and a very different operational model from the parent organization. This was inevitably bound to generate integration challenges.
This ambivalent situation has crystallized preconceptions and stereotypes on both sides. Many ILO colleagues think that the Centre is too independent, expensive and little knowledgeable on substantive issues. The Centre is still often regarded as an external supplier rather than an internal arm. Likewise, Turin staff has developed over the time a sort of “poor relative” syndrome, lamenting ILO’s little ownership and understanding of the Centre’s role in capacity development and knowledge-sharing. The perception that the Office does not make full use of the Centre’s potential has encouraged Turin managers to expand their training offer beyond the specific mandate of the ILO.
One peculiar feature of the operational model of the Centre is the fact that only one third of its budget is covered through regular contributions. A large portion of the income generated through the provision of training services to paying donors or clients is used to cover the gap between the Centre’s fixed revenues and its fixed costs. This has promoted an entrepreneurial culture and a strong attention to cost-effectiveness and client orientation. However, the Centre’s dependency on paying demand generates several challenges, such as unpredictability of incoming funds, which in turn hampers long-term investment; a permanent tension between compliance with the institutional mandate and market demand; and limited access to training opportunities by national institutions with insufficient purchasing power, including labour ministries, employers’ and workers’ organizations.
Despite these constraints, the Centre succeeded in expanding its activities and generating financial surpluses for many years. The training programme grew five-fold between 1994 and 2010 and has remained stable since. The main drivers for growth were donor diversification and reduced earmarking, institutional partnerships, a re-organization of training teams, a more efficient and transparent pricing and costing policy, the diversification of delivery modalities, the introduction of quality assurance mechanisms. The Centre also succeeded in overcoming the drastic reduction of the annual contribution from its main donor, the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in the years that followed the economic and financial crisis.
At that time, however, the potential impact of these cuts on the financial and institutional sustainability of the Centre triggered an animated debate on both sides of the Alps. Between 2010 and 2012 several missions, consultants, papers and reviews went back and forth between Geneva and Turin trying to forge a common answer to the challenges faced by the Centre. The Office made a genuine effort to involve the Centre more systematically in its work processes. However, this mostly translated into the Centre spreading its human resources thin across innumerable planning, reviewing and monitoring exercises rather than addressing the specific issues concerning the interface between the Office and the Centre.
Eventually, this discussion fizzled out, also due to the reluctance of the previous Director of the Centre to address strategic issues. However, I believe that solutions do exist and, contrary to conventional wisdom, they do not entail increased funding to Turin, but rather streamlining the way the two institutions interact. With a new Director of the Centre who is far more open-minded than his predecessor, it may be time to start thinking a bit out of the box of ‘business as usual’. Possible options include:
- The Office could encourage donors to make annual contributions helping to close the gap between the fixed costs and the fixed income of the Centre. Even small regular contributions could generate an emulation effect with other governments and institutions. In return, the Centre could offer its sponsors adequate visibility, set concessional conditions for their staff to attend training courses and maybe ensure them a permanent seat in its Board.
- The Office could recognize the Centre’s lead role in relation to ILO staff development, multimedia production and the dissemination and validation of ILO research.
- A programme approach could be adopted for transferring ILO extra-budgetary, RBSA and slippage resources to the Centre. The ILO provides approximately one quarter of the Centre’s income. However, these resources mostly come through a multitude of small and micro highly earmarked transactions. Some past ILO/donor partnerships included a core component for the funding of Turin training activities related to the geographic and thematic priorities of each agreement. This modality worked well and could be re-introduced, if the donors concerned agree.
- A joint business process review could help streamline the complicated interface in the administrative and financial transactions between the Office and the Centre, entailing heavy overhead costs for both.
- Staff mobility could be enhanced between the Office and the Centre. Beyond institutional mechanisms, a key factor to ensure synergy between the two organizations is the positive experience of working together. The opportunity for staff to serve in both institutions has proven indeed to be the best ingredient for enhancing mutual understanding and collaboration. However, the current arrangements in place to facilitate staff exchanges are ineffective. In particular, the handling of return rights represents a big disincentive to mobility. To start with, Turin professional staff could be assimilated to technical cooperation staff with over five years of service in the context of selection processes. Also, the Office and the Centre could agree to mutually recognize career advances of staff seconded to the other organization (e.g. promotions and steps of merit).
These different measures imply a joint decision making between ILO and Centre management. Still, there are things that the Centre can do on its own to enhance its effectiveness and sustainability. These include a leaner management structure to produce savings and to simplify the decision making process; a further partial re-organization of the training teams to attain economies of scale and improve the cost-effective use of available technical, pedagogical, linguistic, managerial and administrative competencies; a similar re-organization of the administrative sector, reducing the number of unnecessary internal transactions; improved financial monitoring; the investment of savings and surpluses in a drastic overhaul of the management information system, eliminating duplications and mismatches among the current applications; and a further diversification of training tools and methodology.
This ambitious, but feasible agenda should be implemented through an inclusive approach where solutions are forged jointly between the managers and the staff involved in the different work processes, making all officials feel that their views and ideas are taken into account. In that regard, the first and foremost priority is to find a reasonable solution to the plight of a large number of Turin staff who have been on precarious contracts, in some cases, for over ten or even twenty years, though their functions differ in no way from those of regular budget colleagues. This discriminatory situation is a big source of stress affecting the staff’s morale and motivation. A plan should be negotiated with the Staff Union for the progressive regularization of precarious staff through a combination of criteria related to length of service, nature of the job and performance.