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Alaska Customized Employment Project:
Partnership and Collaborative Efforts
Grant number, name, and location: Alaska Customized Employment Project, Juneau, AK, E-9-4-2-0090
Grant Recipient: Alaska Workforce Investment Board
Project Lead: Alaska Vocational Rehabilitation
Subcontractors: The University of Alaska (Evaluator), Employment for All, and Marc Gold and Associates (Training and Technical Assistance)
Partner-based work groups can be highly effective, particularly if they:
- Are assisted by an outside facilitator
- Are based on mutually agreed-upon goals
- Meet on a regular (but not an excessive) basis
- One-Stop staff and partners benefit from flexibility and the ability to work in the community
- Partnerships are most effective when they operate both locally and statewide.
Partnerships on both a systemic and a practical level are the key strength of the Alaska Customized Employment Grant. From the start, this grant has worked through a number of local and statewide advisory and management boards. While many grants employ such groups as aspects of management and oversight, this grant partnered with them deftly as agents of systemic collaboration and leadership.
Local and State Working Groups
At each of the five local sites, One-Stop, partner, and grant staff initially convened for two separate meetings. The first meeting focused on One-Stop Career Center redesign, which entailed an examination of the physical layout and programmatic structure of the services offered in each center. Subsequent meetings focused on issues of sustaining the achievement of the grant.
On the state level, the grant initially designated an advisory board comprising system leaders and decision makers. Much of the effort of this group also focused on sustainability.
What made the Alaska working groups so effective?
- Outside facilitation: Each working group was facilitated by Joe Skiba, a consultant with Employment for All, who was not only deeply familiar with the work and challenges of each group but also knowledgeable about national trends, best practices, and policy. As such, his was an "outsider's" perspective and a disinterested voice that transcended local political concerns.
- Goal orientation: The Alaska work groups oriented their efforts toward clearly defined long- and short-term goals, giving their work real-time significance and providing an antidote to what has been the key failure of many working groups, operating under too broad a purview without a concrete understanding of desired outcomes.
- Consistent and broad buy-in: Local and state leaders from various agencies and constituencies as appropriate to the agenda at hand, attended meetings consistently, missing sessions only rarely due to unavoidable conflicts. In addition, members made up a broad-enough spectrum so that decisions arrived at by group consensus could be implemented easily, without the need to convince stakeholders who had not previously been included in the discussions.
While participants of the working groups varied by region, certain organizations were consistent across all groups. As the grant recipient and a strong partner in the One-Stop system, Vocational Rehabilitation was an active partner in every group, as was the Department of Public Assistance. Workforce Investment Act (WIA) Adult and Employment Services staff also was typically represented at every level. Community Rehabilitation Providers were often at the table and played a vital role in service delivery in many areas. Native and faith-based community organizations were represented at the state level, though the Native Vocational Rehabilitation agency did not typically collaborate with this grant. Other partners across the state included Independent Living Centers, Transition from School to Work projects, and mental health service organizations.
One-Stop Redesign Teams
In each project area, redesign teams were established to assess the architecture of the One-Stop Career Center services. Activities related to these groups have varied by site. At some centers, major physical alterations to the facilities themselves were contemplated and, in some cases, implemented (click here for examples of these alterations). At other centers, the methods and chronology of service were analyzed and then optimized to best meet the needs of each partner and its customers.
In Anchorage, the redesign team oversaw the expansion of the center into additional space within the same facility, including the relocation of various customer service staff and a redesign of the layout for customer intake. The team repositioned staff, facilities, and resources to suit customers' patterns of movement and usage rather than simply assigning the new space to a single group or going with the easiest staff re-arrangement.
In addition, following an examination of customer service in Wasilla, the team reassigned some greeting and frontline staff to better identify customers' needs early on in the One-Stop process. This initial assessment of needs, known as a triage, is of great value in routing customers to the appropriate services and ensuring that individuals in need of extra assistance do not "slip through the cracks" of self-directed and Core services.
These teams, which handle staff training, partnership, service funding, and capacity development, were charged with sustaining the practices of customized employment, primarily Discovery, within the community workforce development system of a given area.
In Juneau, the work of sustainability teams focused largely on the One-Stop relationship to small to mid-size community providers. By training and coordinating with the efforts of these providers, the Juneau One-Stop, in collaboration with Vocational Rehabilitation, will continue to offer Customized Employment practices through its overall network of resources. Leads and relationships with employers are also shared (in Juneau and in Anchorage under a similar arrangement), and plans are in place to further formalize the business outreach teams to allow employers a single point of contact with the system.
The Juneau model represents an important finding for One-Stops nationwide who struggle to incorporate the work of community groups into their efforts. The Community Service Providers in Juneau contributed the following to the overall system:
- A business and service model based entirely around low-volume individual service that allowed for individualized planning and negotiation.
- A connection to the One-Stop and its services that did not presume a need to stay in the center to perform certain functions. These agencies provided services almost entirely outside of the One-Stop, though they maintained a close contact with the center and frequently visited to avail themselves of its resources and maintain personal connections. A considerable barrier to efforts in centers nationwide is the staff's near inability to leave the center, lest customers be neglected. And yet, customized services require considerable community outreach and activity. Partnering with Community Service Providers represents an answer to this challenge.
- A highly flexible service style, which allows community providers to alter their schedules, methods, and routines as quickly as necessary to answer the needs of the system and its customers.
The success of the model seems to depend on a handful of features that, while not unique, are also not universally present in other systems. For this model to be replicable, the following foundational aspects, or their equivalents, need to be in place:
- The active presence of Vocational Rehabilitation as a Workforce and One-Stop partner
Vocational Rehabilitation is the agency best poised to fund Customized Employment–style services and, in Alaska, will be the primary funder of these services once the grant has expired. Community Service Providers are accustomed to being funded by Vocational Rehabilitation, and to meeting its goals and infrastructural requirements. The typically extant partnership between the Community Service Provider and Vocational Rehabilitation is complemented by the resources of the One-Stop, and the One-Stop is clearly made more effective in its partnership with them.
- A "Welcoming" Atmosphere in the One-Stop for People with Disabilities
For customers with disabilities to frequent a One-Stop, it must be inherently welcoming to them. Even if WIA services are not the ideal answer for a given customer, all individuals with disabilities must be welcomed in the One-Stop and given access to all its basic resources. Alaska has done an exemplary job of ensuring that each of its centers is welcoming and responsive to all customers.
- Small and Responsive Community Service Providers
Because the One-Stop system is large and typically highvolume, the Community Provider it partners with would ideally be extremely flexible and responsive to the diverse needs of customers with significant barriers. In Alaska, many of the partnerships are with providers that are limited to one or two staff, and that can, as such, be highly flexible around the needs of their customers.
It is worth noting again that none of the grant's accomplishments would have been possible without the Center Redesign and Sustainability working groups meeting regularly. It was at these regular meetings, more than anywhere else, that knowledge gained through direct experience in the field was effectively integrated with local and state policy concerns, bridging the gap that often exists between the two.
The Statewide Advisory Board
To supplement the work occurring at the local level, state leaders of various Workforce-related systems, including the Department of Labor and Workforce Development, Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, Division of Employment Security, Department of Education & Early Development, Special Education Department of Health and Social Services; Public Assistance & Behavioral Health, Department of Labor and Workforce Development Business Partnership Division, and the Statewide Alaska Workforce Investment Board (AWIB), gathered on a quarterly basis to discuss issues brought to the fore by the implementation of the Alaska Customized Employment Project. Over the last two to three years, the work of the advisory board has been augmented by a subcommittee that meets monthly, via phone, to discuss sustainability issues and report back to the larger group on their findings. Innovations resulting from this collaboration have included:
- The adoption of customized practices by the Department of Public Assistance
The Department of Public Assistance (DPA), the TANF–funded state agency in Alaska, adopted a pilot project to implement discovery practices for some of its customers. It did so based on the apparent success of the Customized Employment Grant. The model adopted by the DPA differs slightly, as its work is designed around whole families for which the discovery process was adjusted (click here for more information). Given the positive results of the pilot project in working with families who had previously experienced little success, the pilot efforts were made a permanent component of the agency's work.
- A change in payment policies at Vocational Rehabilitation
To further accommodate the practice of discovery, Vocational Rehabilitation agreed to alter its statewide rules for paying vendors by now paying community providers to deliver discovery as an assessment tool. This move has allowed for the ongoing provision of discovery services, among the most important and distinctive services in the Customized repertoire, even after the expiration of grant funds. Without this change in policy, the Community Provider innovations witnessed in Juneau and other areas would have been impossible to sustain beyond the grant.
"Behind the Scenes" Negotiation and Leadership
In addition to the formal meetings and participatory events already referenced, the Alaska Customized Employment Project benefited from the strong leadership of its grant management and consultants behind the scenes. When necessary, some negotiations occurred away from the more public meetings. Often, partners have concerns they are not comfortable bringing up in a large group and which need to be addressed privately. As such, meeting with these stakeholders individually is sometimes a key requirement to the ongoing success and growth of the grant. This grant's leadership proved itself dynamic in both large- and small-group negotiations.