Ajibola Ponnle is the Lagos State Commissioner for Establishment, Training and Pension. In this interview with GBENGA SALAU, she talks about how the state has reformed the service through accelerated capacity development and plans to clear the backlog of accrued benefits of pensioners.

What is the ministry doing to deepen the skills of workers in the state for effective service delivery?
One of the things we did when we came into office was to identify the strategic pillars that we wanted to focus on. The first thing that we wanted to do was what we called accelerated capacity development for public servants.

We wanted to increase the number of people trained and we wanted to deepen the type of skills that we train them on. So, we went on mass capacity development, ensuring that we touched on various technical competencies and professions within the public service. It was not the usual soft skill training that was the norm. We trained engineers, architects, public affairs officers and the various cadres.
We also wanted to deepen the level of professionalism within the service. Thus, we went about certifying certain people internally in project management, Key Performance Index (KPI) and even coaching skills to get internal capacity developed. It is so that we can draw on those people when needs arise instead of heavily relying on external consultants. So, we have a respectable base of internal professionals that we are growing as the years go by.

But I think the most notable change that I believe has come into the system is the learning management system that was introduced, which is an online learning platform for public servants. It was a programme that Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu had a strong push to ensure that we started, which again complements the accelerated training and development drive. We wanted to leverage technology to deliver training. So, the learning management system platform was deployed in early 2020 and it gives public servants access to over 8000 courses in various disciplines, not just soft skills.  

We partnered with Microsoft LinkedIn learning, which is one of the best online content libraries in the world on this. With that our public servants have access to this content to learn, whether on their laptops or phones as we made it mobile-friendly or any electronic device so long that it is web enabled.

For us to do this right, Mr Governor recognised the fact that there is no point in giving people access to these platforms without data. The reason, we also provided for the people on the platform, free data on a monthly basis, so that data will not be a hindrance to accessing this knowledge.

What has enabled us to do it right is that from the office of the establishment and training, we can monitor who is training and in which department, ministries or agencies. We have had amazing responses, even from permanent secretaries, who actually gave their staff some mandatory courses to take as well as different levels of staff and different pieces of training. That for me, I think is one of the notable changes.  

Also on technology, we were able to deploy a lot of online training programmes through webinars. For instance, we have what we call, Excoshares, which is a knowledge-sharing platform, but done online, where members of the state executive council members share their thought on a topic on monthly basis. One other key achievement of this administration is the fact that we have been able to develop what we call a competency framework for 20 cadres within the service. What the competency framework allows us to do is to break down the knowledge, technical competencies, skills and abilities as well as behavioural competencies that every cadre requires for them to move from one level to another.

So, you now know if you are an engineer on a certain grade level, you know the technical skills you require, and what is the generic and behavioural skills you require to move from one level to another. So that as you grow and progress, you know what you need and need to learn to get to the top of your career.

The methodology of training has changed as well. Our training is no longer lecture styles. We have changed the approach and we are very particular about this, to do more workshop style and learning interventions as well as experiential. We also ensure that in the training, there is an aspect where they take back to the service, to show that they have actually learnt new skills, thus they have a post-training project, where they are able to transfer that learning to the daily work and ensure that they have actually learnt what they ought to have learnt.

As one of the key agencies supporting the Head of Service (HoS) to reform the public sector, could you highlight some programmes and plans you have on the course?
We are definitely not resting on our oars. We are actually on the verge of launching another very exciting programme to support accelerated capacity development.

In ensuring that people learn, retain and recollect what they learnt, the governor has just approved what we call the private-public sector capacity development programme.

Basically, the aim is to ensure that our public servants in various professional disciplines acquire best-in-class learning from industries. So, we are sending our best hands to the private sector to work for a period of three to six months, depending on the cadre.

The idea is to help them gain practical knowledge, and expose them to the latest technologies and practices in industries, which we are not yet implementing. But with the initiative, they are able to practice it. They are also going to be exposed to the culture and high-performance work environment in the private sector. We are hoping that by the time we send people through that programme, the knowledge acquired would be brought back and deployed in-house.

Phase 1 of the project is starting next month and because it is a private-public exchange programme, Phase 2 would be for us to have people in the industries come into the public sector to share knowledge and give public servants hands-on experience.

We are sort of cross-pollinating ideas and knowledge from both sides of the divide. We believe that this extremely innovative idea will upskill the capacity of our public servants very quickly aside from them learning the high-performance culture that will be brought back to the public service.

Another initiative that we are starting is the Lateef Jakande Leadership Academy which is Mr Governor’s project, but we are the implementation partner.

What the academy aims to do is to get the best and brightest young leaders across Nigeria and put them through a year fellowship programme where they form a shadow cabinet. They will be attached to executive council members in the various MDAs, learning policy making and management, and hands-on day-to-day governance from the ministries.

We are also going to expose them to best-in-class learning on leadership, governance, policy management, and public administration as well as interacting with top leaders in both the private and public sectors at local government, state and federal.

Also, they will have the opportunity to go on an international policy trip to one of the countries that we believe have been able to transform their nation from a developing to an emerging nation. This is so that at the end of the fellowship, they have been able to imbibe good leadership skills and technical governance ideals and hopefully, put them back in the public sector, in different MDAs at federal, state and local government levels.
The scheme is for 30 young leaders, 10 of them would be from the public sector and we are hoping to extend that to having a leadership academy for the public sector. It is to identify young talents and be able to retain them to put them on the track that would fast track their development in the system.
Another project that we are looking at is the digital literacy programme. We are in a digital world and we know that the nations and the economies that will survive in this knowledge-based revolution will be those that have a strong understanding and grounding in digital literacy. So, we are embarking on a digital literacy programme for public servants where we would upskill them in areas of digital literacy and we are hoping that will be done in conjunction with the Ministry of Science and Technology

Finally, we are one of the key agencies supporting the Head of Service (HoS) in Project Talent, a public service reform programme. As you know, there is no way the governor can achieve the THEMES agenda without a strong and competent public service that works. We are happy to support the HoS in this, in ensuring that this is achieved and actualised in the shortest possible time.

Issues around pension have been a pain in the neck for many states in Nigeria, what is the story in Lagos?
I am pleased to be part of the Lagos team because Lagos State has always been known and has been at the forefront of pension administration in the country.

Repeatedly, Lagos State has been noted by PENCOM as the best state in terms of pension compliance and administration. That is not something that came by accident. It is the concerted efforts of many years to ensure that the state complies with the Pension Act and I believe that we have complied with the Act.

Under this administration, the initiatives that have been put in place in the area of pension again support the fact that the governor’s promise is not just to support workers’ welfare, but also pensioners. When the governor came in, one of the first things that were done was to increase the pension of the old pensioners, alongside the monthly minimum wage that was increased. It was for the old pensioners not under the contributory pension scheme.

We were also able to make the verification process very easy for pensioners. One of the things that are compulsory for us is to verify our pensioners, to know who is alive and those too who we pay pension. ­That verification process has been made easy because it can now be done online. Gone are the days when pensioners come to the ministry or where pensioners are coming with their beds and queuing under the rain and sun to get verified or get their pension.

You do not need to do that in Lagos State. You can verify yourself in your bedroom and anywhere in the world because we have a biometric database of our pensioners and the verification can be done online.

A few people still come to the ministry but that has been minimised, that again leveraging technology to make life easier for our pensioners.

Another thing the governor has done in the last three years is to increase the rate of the redemption bond saving account, which is an account set aside to pay outstanding accrued rights of our pensioners.

With the rate of funding now, Lagos is paying roughly N1 to N1.5b monthly into the account and we are doing that consistently. Our hope and the governor’s hope is that by the end of the first term of this administration, we would have cleared the backlog of the accrued rights of our pensioners. And what that means is that, once you retire, you have immediate access to your retirement savings account through your Pension Fund Administrators (PFAs), which would be the first of any state, including the FG in this nation as we stand.
We are hoping to start a welfare programme for pensioners in the area of free healthcare and it is at a very advanced stage of implementation. This is alongside free transportation that will come a little bit after the health insurance for pensioners. Our pension administration is world class and we are ensuring that we do not have any outstanding and all our contributions are made on a regular basis.

How have you been managing unions in the state to prevent labour disputes?
One of the things we were able to establish again, very early with the unions was an open door policy. So, our unions have access to top leadership, not just face-to-face access but also connect with me, the permanent secretary, Special Adviser on Labour on an easy platform.

So many times, a lot of the issues that they have, we know them ahead of time. We are able to, apart from the open communication, clear some long outstanding issues that they had pending up to this administration. Issues that they have been chasing for 10 years upward and we were able to discharge many of them. 
In addition to this, when they bring their issues we are able to develop creative solutions that align with public service rules, but that also meet their own needs and ours. We have trained them constantly to develop their capacity to manage their unions better and the people they lead in an effective way, through international and local training.

The union leaders and representatives have been having regular meetings with the governor even with his busy schedules. He creates time to meet with them, to listen to and support their welfare as well. He just approved land in the Central Business District (CBD) of Alausa for the unions to build their offices. He supported them with cars and other welfare needs. I believe they trust him because he listens and delivers on the promises he had made.

What are legacy projects that will be outstanding after this government?
We would like to be remembered as the team that brought innovation to the area of capacity development and all the areas under our purview.

That we have been able to introduce new procedures and initiatives that support the growth and development of the public service. We would also like to be remembered for being result-oriented achieving and inspiring people who worked with us to achieve more than they would ordinarily have achieved.

So, it is really working with a team, because we cannot do it alone, there is a strong team that works to deliver on all these initiatives. For me, it is really to be known as somebody that was able to inspire the team to deliver high performance.

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