Evaluation of the federal government’s literacy and essential skills program

The latest evaluation of the work of the Office of Literacy and Essential Skills (OLES) has been posted (a shout-out to the Saskatchewan Literacy Network for finding and publicizing the report; the report is not on the OLES website but rather on the Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) Corporate website). Here is a copy of the report Evaluation Literacy and Essential Skills.

The evaluation covers both the Adult Learning, Literacy and Essential Skills Program (ALLESP) and the Employment Insurance Part II – National Essential Skills Initiative (NESI), both of which are administered by OLES. This is the first time, to my knowledge, that the EI Part II initiative has been included in the evaluation.

The evaluation covers fiscal years 2011-12 to 2015-16. The last summative evaluation was in 2012 with a formative evaluation in 2010. (see Summative Evaluation of ALLESP – 2012 and Formative Evaluation of ALLESP 2010). No indication is given of which firm conducted the evaluation.

In light of limited information from OLES, the evaluation is helpful in that it positions the work of OLES within the mandate of ESDC:

Employment and Social Development Canada is committed to the development of a skilled, adaptable and inclusive labour force and an efficient labour market. The Office contributes to the achievement of this strategic outcome by supporting Canadians to improve their literacy and essential skills to help them better prepare for, to get, and to keep a job and to adapt and succeed at work.[1]

The evaluation indicates that in 2015-16, OLES “shifted its focus to systemic change by encouraging the integration of literacy and essential skills into labour market programming, services, and policies.”[2] I would contend that the shift happened well before 2015-16.

The evaluation findings reinforce the importance of literacy and essential skills and the need and a role for the federal government. The evaluation is critical of the effectiveness of the current effort citing issues with communications, knowledge sharing, delays in funding and lack of performance measures.

The evaluation confirms my research on the underspending by OLES over the past years, although my numbers and those in the evaluation report are not quite the same.

Table 1: Budget for the Office’s Grants and Contributions Programs – 2011-12 – 2015-16[3]

Program Expenditures 2011-12 2012-13 2013-14 2014-15 2015-16
ALLESP – Budget $21,509,000 $21,509,000 $21,509,000 $21,509,000 $21,509,000
ALLESP – % of budget spent 80.5% 56.7% 69.1% 56.5% 39.9%
NESI – Budget $13,200,000 $13,200,000 $4,200,000 $4,200,000 $4,200,000
NESI – % of budget spent 89.8% 69.4% 88.7% 16.1% Not available

The evaluation only reviewed 13 projects which it said were funded during the evaluation period. In fact, far more were funded. But the evaluation seems to have only looked at projects that resulted from two calls for proposals: the 2012 call which saw 44 proposals of which 12 were funded and the 2013 call which saw 106 proposals and only 1 funded. The 2015 call for concept papers is referenced in the report but no outcome is presented. I’m not sure why the evaluation only focused on the 13 projects – very peculiar.

While the evaluation was positive regarding the role the federal government plays, it recognized concerns about the lack of flexibility in programming, i.e. the strict focus on the nine essential skills. The end of core funding was more negatively perceived by the organizations affected than by those who were not. Grants and contributions operations are no longer housed within OLES but in a central office; however, the evaluation found that project recipients still found the process complicated or very complicated (82%). Opportunity exists in working with the provinces to development a common plan of action and to integrate literacy and essential skills into the Labour Market Transfer Agreements.

The evaluation makes 3 recommendations:

  1. Consider working with provinces, territories and partners to develop formal partnership strategies to support stakeholder network development and the sustainability of effective approaches;
  2. Continue to improve communications with provinces and territories, partners and stakeholders; and
  3. Update the performance measurement information and related tools to reflect recent changes.

Management agreed with all three recommendations. Its response outlined four initiatives to deal with recommendation #1:-

  • Federal, Provincial and Territorial (FPT) Literacy and Essential Skills Network (Fall 2016)
  • Learning Federal, Provincial and Territorial (FPT) Advisory Committee (June 2017)
  • Essential Skills and Apprenticeship Community of Practice (June 2017)
  • Government of Canada Federal Network on Essential Skills (Spring 2017)

However, each of these initiatives only involve provinces and territories and not other stakeholders.

To deal with recommendation #2, a communication strategy is being developed and the project database on the OLES website was to be updated as of fall 2017. However, I can attest to the fact that the OLES database has not been updated since 2010. The ESDC database only has information on 2017-18 projects.

Several responses were listed under recommendation #3. The most ‘interesting’ in the sense of challenging and potentially alarming is:

Include a stronger focus on outcomes measurement (e.g. skill gain, psycho-social indicators), data collection and reporting (to be developed in collaboration with the Program Operations Branch)[4]

I would suggest OLES consult with the province of Ontario on its efforts to track learner gains and why it abandoned that effort.

The evaluation findings are not new nor are they surprising. Much work is needed to reinstate the federal role, to support provincial/territorial efforts, and to create and sustain a network of partners.

[1] Employment and Social Development Canada. Evaluation of Literacy and Essential Skills, Final Report. October 3, 2017. Page 4

[2] Ibid. Page iv.

[3] Ibid. Page 6.

[4] Ibid. Page vii

About Brigid Hayes

Brigid Hayes has developed an expertise in learning that spans over 30 years as a senior government policy advisor and program manager and partnership developer; director of labour for a national business/labour skills centre and as an independent consultant. Her knowledge of and experience in workplace literacy and learning has contributed to her recognition as an expert in this field, and she has undertaken significant activities to both help promote and enhance literacy and lifelong learning. Brigid works as an independent consultant and expert advisor on learning, literacy, and work. She has successfully developed a strategic planning and policy development practice involving workplace literacy, essential skills, partnership development, research, and evaluation.
This entry was posted in Adult Literacy and Basic Skills Policy, Employment and Social Development Canada, ESDC, Federal Government and Literacy, Literacy and Essential Skills, Office of Literacy and Essential Skills (OLES), Provincial/Territorial Governments and Literacy. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Evaluation of the federal government’s literacy and essential skills program

  1. Isabelle Coutant says:

    Thank you Bridgid for your analysis and comments on this report. I hope that the few recommendations about OLMCs will bring about some changes in the (lack of) funding of the groups.

  2. David Lewis says:

    Thanks Brigid. Not much of a track record for OLES, all in all!

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