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Nov 11, 2022

Today, Dacia Johnson, Executive Director of the Oregon Commission for the Blind, chats with Carol Pankow, about some of the really innovative practices that the Oregon Commission for the Blind has implemented to improve organizational effectiveness and benefit the VR community.


Dacia and her team did a lot of work preparing for monitoring and restructuring some critical elements of the organizational structure that has the VR community talking. 


Join Dacia and Carol in the Manager Minute studio for this timely conversation on championing innovation and high performance in a climate where so many agencies are looking for ways to spend VR funds effectively.


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Full Transcript


VRTAC-QM Manager Minute: Rethinking Agency Organizational Structure- Ideas that Work with Dacia Johnson-Oregon Blind



Speaker1: Manager Minute brought to you by the VRTAC for Quality Management, Conversations powered by VR, one manager at a time, one minute at a time. Here is your host Carol Pankow.


Carol: Well, welcome to the manager minute. Joining me in the studio today is Dacia Johnson, executive director of the Oregon Commission for the Blind. She has been the executive director since 2013 and was the director of the agency's rehabilitation services program prior to that. So Dacia was so good to see you at the VR conference last week. How are things going in Oregon?


Dacia: It was great to see you as well, Carol. And things are going well here. I mean, I think like every agency, we have our challenges and opportunities, but certainly we're focused on providing the best services we can to Oregonians who experience vision, loss and just getting at it every day.


Carol: Awesome to hear. Well, full disclosure to our listeners, Dacia and I have worked together in both NCSAB and CSVAR and we were new director buddies. Back in 2013, right before the world changed with WIOA in 2014, and I had the good fortune to participate in the Oregon Commission for the Blind Monitoring visit this year and learned a ton of interesting things about the agency. Dacia's undertaken some really cutting edge organizational improvements that will be a benefit to the VR community, and I knew I needed to get her on the program to talk about this. And I think it's also fitting and timely with the state of the national VR program and agencies are looking for ways to effectively spend funds. So let's dig in. So Dacia, can you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself and the agency? Like what's your background and how did you land at the commission?


Dacia: Sure. I started my undergraduate degrees in psychology and so like every undergraduate with a psychology major, I didn't know what I was going to do. And I moved back to a small town in southern Oregon and I got a job with at the time it was a GPA workforce training program, and I loved that job. I did that for a couple of years and what I realized was my favorite part of it was working with at Risk Youth and what that was with youth with disabilities, right? They were kids with significant learning disabilities, kids with psychiatric disabilities. And I just love the work. That job ended and I moved myself to the big city and I started in private rehabilitation. And I realized quickly that the work of private rehabilitation just didn't really fit my values. And so I started working in public vocational rehabilitation while I simultaneously pursued my graduate degree in rehabilitation counseling. I did that at the general agency in Oregon. There's two agencies here, there's the general agency, and then there's the services for the individuals who are blind under what's called the Commission for the Blind, where I currently work. And I was recruited to come here in 2000 and I immediately fell in love with the work. Carol, you know this, but blindness rehabilitation is very holistic. You really have to address the needs of the entire person, starting with skills and adjustment and just helping them kind of redirect their existing skills and new and innovative ways. And I just loved it. I also love the fact that with the blindness organization are oftentimes closer to the work. I love policy, I love meetings. I'm a nerd that way. I love thinking about new programs. But with our agency, you actually get to see people who are going through the rehabilitation process. You get to interact with them. And so it was just the right elevation for me. And I've been here ever since.


Carol: I love that. I didn't know that about you. That's a cool way to start. And you're like an old timer now. You've been there, what, 20 going on? 23.


Dacia: Been here? Yep, 22 years in August. And for a long time I was the newbie. And so now it is a little bit interesting to be one of the most senior staff people. I will say that I have never not wanted to come to work and to me that's an incredible gift to be able to work doing things that you're passionate about with incredibly committed, passionate rehabilitation professionals, not unlike yourself, Carol, but we just have just a wonderful, service oriented mission. And I love coming to work and I feel incredibly grateful for that opportunity every day.


Carol: Yeah, you have a fantastic team. Now, I know a commission is a little bit of a different structure than most people are maybe used to. Can you give us just a few high points and what's different about that? And then also, like, how many people do you guys serve?


Dacia: All right. So we have a commission structure. We're grandfathered under the Rehabilitation Act, so we don't have a state rehabilitation council. We have a seven member board that reports directly to the governor. And that board has appointing authority over the executive director. Myself and the majority of those commissioners in Oregon have to be legally blind. And so our structure really ensures that we're focusing in and have crystal clear priorities around the best services possible to Oregonians who are blind or blindness organization. So we provide a combination of vocational rehabilitation services and independent living. Services to individuals with the largest independent living program being the older independent living program. For individuals who are blind. We serve anywhere from 1300 to 1600 folks a year in our vocational rehabilitation program. Last year, I think we served around 650 folks.


Carol: Yeah, it gives me a good perspective because I think back at SSB when I left, we were around 800 folks in the VR, and OIB program we were serving about 5000 people.


Dacia: Wow. It's incredible.


Carol: It's pretty cool. But I'm like you, I love that work and I love being close to the people and seeing what's going on. So I know you and your team did a just a ton of work preparing for that monitoring, but you also did a lot of work in restructuring some critical elements of your organizational structure. Can you tell our listeners what prompted you to think about doing something different with your structure and what are the specific things that you've done.


Dacia: On the monitoring piece, I think what I will say about preparing for monitoring is use the tools that are available to us that you, Carol, have developed. So I think that basically you use the checklists that the TAC has created for agencies. It makes a difference, right? So we actually thought we were on the short list for a long time. So we actually had been preparing, I would say, on a quarterly basis, going through the monitoring guide for that particular year and just trying to think through some of the questions. The monitoring guide doesn't change radically year to year. So we just kind of made sure that we were not starting from ground zero once they notified the states that were monitored. And I encourage everyone to do that because it really makes you think about kind of your structure. The other thing is I've been here a long time, and so I think that some of the skills that we all developed in vocational rehabilitation counseling, in terms of assessing skills and abilities and capabilities, I feel like I've applied that to our organization over time. And then I've looked for opportunities to be able to strategically invest in the organization. One of the things in which we're unique is that we actually employed an internal auditor and folks are like, How can a small agency benefit from an internal auditor? Well, I'll tell you, one of the first things that that position did when we hired them was to create some infrastructure around our quality assurance manual auditors, because we wanted that position to be able to actually audit the work they own the process of making sure things were documented in terms of internal controls, policies and procedures, but they actually didn't create the internal control, if that makes sense. They didn't create the policies and procedures. So that position had enough distance that over time they can actually do the internal auditing and testing of the processes to make sure they're in place. But really having one position that directly reports to me that had that full responsibility of making sure that things were clear documented in one place and kind of reflected the organization, I think was critical to us. That position is constantly having activities going on to make sure that our organization is running effectively and efficiently. They also were the lead on the monitoring preparation. It is a massive lift to get prepared for monitoring and go through the process. But we had one point of contact that doesn't do the work of the service delivery and they were able to objectively kind of track our progress and leading up to the monitoring and then led the work for the onsite monitoring itself. And it felt like it ran pretty smoothly to have that structure. So even if you don't have a separate position like we have, I would encourage folks to use that central point of contact ownership model because I think it made our monitoring run fairly smoothly.


Carol: Yeah, I thought it was pretty cool because that's Clay's position, correct?


Dacia: Yes. Yes.


Carol: So if anybody out there, you can't have Clay, But Clay is really awesome. And we were able to get into contact with him before you all went through the monitoring. He had reached out about a couple of things and I was like, What? Like what is this position? And that's why I just want you to say, what did your monitoring team say about this position?


Dacia: They were really pleased to see it, particularly on the fiscal side and looking at the way we have that separation and the ability to objectively review information, they were very favorable about the position for sure.


Carol: Yeah. In fact, I think they said we've never seen this anywhere else. You are the only agency that has had a position that was developed quite like that, and I thought that was pretty cool. So I guess I didn't realize that Clay had not developed that whole extensive manual that you had. There is a lot of work that went into that. Who did that? Who did all of that?


Dacia: He helped kind of with the lift of getting things documented. But each of the programs actually did the identification of the issues because we wanted him to have that autonomy and independence and not creating the actual documentation itself. Before we had dedicated resources, we started the process of creating a quality assurance manual. And what we realize is without dedicated resources to focus on it, it never happened. So the other thing I would encourage folks to do, if you don't have that position to help with the documentation is I basically said and I gave I think three months and I just said, you have to do it by this date.


Carol: Oh my gosh, yeah, that's quick.


Dacia: And I just said, it's never going to be a good time. And I just set a deadline. I think it was three months. People freaked out a little bit, but the reality is it got done right? And then we built from the foundation. We added once we kind of did a gap analysis of what was missing from that initial documentation list, then Clay helped kind of figure out where we needed to create documentation beyond what that initial lift was.


Carol: Well, and I know with the blind agency, it's always unique because we're typically smaller. We don't have a lot of resources. So kind of carving out these sort of positions and making investments in a particular piece of infrastructure like that. You know, it's kind of a deal. It's a big deal to do it. And so taking the funds and kind of making that happen. So had you had that kind of swirling around in your mind for a while?


Dacia: I had I mean, like every agency you go through the single audit act experience where you have external auditors. When I first became executive director, there was a significant push to try to make sure that the agency was running effectively and efficiently. And what I quickly realized is you don't know what you don't know, you know, especially like in on the service delivery side, but you have gaps and you're just not going to see them unless you have a focused attention on actually looking for your gaps. And so once I realized the pressure and the expectation to have this particular element be like running the best it could be, then I thought, well, then give me the resources. Right? I advocated for the resources to make sure that we could actually maintain that level of expectations.


Carol: Good for you. That's awesome. You also made some investment, though, in your fiscal team. I remember because did you not structure some things in a different way with your fiscal unit as well?


Dacia: We did. We actually had some turnover at our chief financial officer level and as I did the exit interview with the candidate that left who loved working for the agency, they indicated like this is impossible work, like you have like the CFO as a small agency wearing all of these hats. But there were so many hats that they were running from one fire to another fire to another fire to another fire. So then we hire a new CFO, and within a couple of months, the new person was like, I feel like I'm running from one fire to another fire to another fire like, All right. So either I listen to these very different professionals with different backgrounds and expertise and say there's too much work, right? So we advocated to add a grant accountant position that had just started actually last December. So not quite a year yet. And the grant accountant position in part is going to be focusing on preparing all of the grant reports and all of that tracking. And then that gives the CFO the opportunity to be able to review that work with some separation to make sure that that work is accurate, that it has all of the required elements in it. We had some very small but annoying financial reporting errors that were recurring that came up on the Single Audit Act audits. And the major barrier for us was the CFO was preparing the report, reviewing their own work and then submitting the report. And there were keying errors, you know, silly things that you just can't double check your own work. It's impossible.


Carol: Right? Good for you. Yeah. Because you know, all those single audit act, when you get on that list, there's always a lot of follow up. And I remember back in the day, like our governor's office, I'd have to send quarterly reports like how we're going to resolve this particular finding. They don't like you to have any. So good for you for doing that. So how do you think things are working out since you've made those changes? And have you had any kind of lessons learned along the way so far?


Dacia: Yeah, I think that they're working out well. One of the things we're working on now that's still in development is, as we know, our financial management is super complex. So we have to at any one time look at state level appropriations and budgets. At the same time, we need to be managing our match and our maintenance of effort and our Pre-ETS and we have to look at our cash on hand and tracking that and making sure that we don't have federal cash around too long and all of these pieces. And so we're creating with the lead work, being of that new grant account position, some kind of a dashboard that can kind of help us make those types of decisions, like when to switch from one year of Pre-ETS to the next year of Pre-ETS, and when we've met our match and maintenance of effort. And how does that compare with our state appropriation year and making sure that we expend all of our state funds that we have available during that period? And what I'm hoping that will be able to do is as we're trying to make decisions in terms of budget appropriation, grant management decisions around re allotment and all of that stuff, that we have kind of some data intelligence to help us kind of drive those decisions and track it over time.


Carol: Well, imagine that data driven decision making, Dacia.


Dacia: I know, right?


Carol: I think you did a little presentation on that a few years ago somewhere. I kind of seem to remember that was one of your big things you like to think about.


Dacia: Yeah, the piece that I would in terms of lessons learned, we're a small agency and we have passionate staff, right? Sometimes I think that I could have probably engaged staff and more often. And as to why are we adding these positions that aren't in the direct service bucket, I think that's a question that still comes up periodically, even though they see the value, but still sometimes they're like, Oh, did we add this? And why didn't we add a counselor or a teacher? No, I don't think you can over communicate the why to staff, even though, again, I think they intellectually see the benefit. But when you add FTE, they really want it to be in the service bucket, the admin stuff. I think they feel like you always have enough, you know. And the truth is, I think that agencies, particularly small agencies under resourced the administrative tasks because there's a certain amount of work that has to happen and it has to happen well, and at the end of the day, if you aren't running your organization well, they're not going to give you extra credit because you've been putting all your resources in the direct service area. They're just going to say that you're not running your organization well.


Carol: Yeah, and then that doesn't bode well. I came in too, to that. And if we aren't shipshape financially and we don't have all of that together, then we can't really run the program.


Dacia: Yeah.


Carol: Don't know what we're doing. So it is always that fine balance because like you say, we're small typically, and when you add that resource over here, people immediately look at that, Oh, sure, you're making, you know, the central office. People are bloated, There's too many people. But boy, in a blind agency, when you're wearing 15 hats, it gets tough. And there has to be that separation for sure.


Dacia: Yeah. And Carol, you and Sara have kind of reinforced directors need to know the financial matters. And I think I can't reinforce that enough, like the whole vision of having a grant account and then figuring out this dashboard stuff that came out of me not sleeping right and trying to think like, gosh darn it, I need to have this kind of information available because I'm the one that's worrying about this at the end of the day.


Carol: So I hope we didn't make you not sleep.


Dacia: Oh, no, not at all.


Carol: I know we talk about it a lot, though. So how far away do you think you are from this dashboard? Because I'm sure people are probably pretty interested.


Dacia: It's probably about 70% there.


Carol: Oh, wow.


Dacia: Yeah, we've been working on it for a while. Like right now we're having to try to make some decisions. Do we have enough spending authority for the remainder of our budget cycle, which is through June 30th? We're going to meet in a couple of weeks. And this is the first test. It's like, is this dashboard going to give us the data that we need to make that budget decision? So we're trying to apply the concepts now to say, where are we at with periods? That's the other test that we have is working with our sister agency, the general agency, on the 22 projects. Are we good? Can we move on to 23 periods? Those kinds of Things.


Carol: Yeah. I definitely want to take a look at that. When you get that done. I'm super interested. I'm sure other people would be as well. So I know your mind is always thinking, Do you have other things you're cooking up there that you're thinking about doing?


Dacia: Well, right now we're preparing and Oregon has a biennial budget, so we've been looking at a specific focus on outreach. We feel like the pandemic was a particular time where folks were kind of hunkered in, especially individuals who are blind, as oftentimes they had other secondary health conditions that made them nervous about acquiring COVID. And so we're wanting to do a pretty aggressive outreach effort and we're hoping to get the resources on that. The other thing that we're excited about is we're asking for some dedicated resources. That would be in house expertise with state funds. That would be like technology gurus to help with kind of the statewide enterprise technology projects to lean in on the accessibility and usability of any type of statewide projects. So in the event that a job seeker or candidate who is blind was thinking about working in some case management system or whatever, that we would at least be able to influence the accessibility usability of some of those statewide systems. So we're pretty excited about that as well.


Carol: Oh, that is very cool. I'm going to give you a tip on that outreach campaign. Check out David D'Angelo. He's from Mass Commission for the Blind. He did this big PSA initiative about a year or so ago with some real admin dollars. And it was very clever, very well done. And I know it's impacted his numbers, so I always like pitching that to everybody. Check out Mass Commission for the Blind as well, because there's not a lot of people. Everybody's talking about this right now, but there's not a lot of examples of ways that people have done that that are out there. So it is always nice to kind of go, Oh, what's somebody else done?


Dacia: That's great. Yeah, we'll definitely check them out.


Carol: So do you have any advice for our listeners as they contemplate looking inward at their own organizational structure, any kind of words of wisdom for them as folks are struggling with this right now?


Dacia: Well, I was inspired by our colleague from California, Joe Xavier, during the course of our leadership forum when he was like, be bold. Right? So I think that would be my first thing. I'm going to just quote Joe and say, be bold. I think that this is a time to just lean in and just think big and just try to apply the same skills that we learned. Many of us grew up through the ranks of counselors and just think about your organization the way you would think about a client, like what are the strengths, what are the resources and what are those opportunities to improve? The other thing I would say to folks is even if you have constraints around FTE and you can't build out a grant account and look for an intergovernmental agreement and grab some resources from another agency that might be able to loan you the expertise. The same with auditing. Before it had a position, we contract it out for auditing work. What I realized from that is the ownership piece is different, right? And you're just not controlling and directing a consultant the way you do a staff. So it just didn't have exactly what I wanted, but it was better than nothing. So know what you can do within your constraints of your systems that you have to work with and then just go for it.


Carol: That's well said. And you've given a little commercial for next month because next month I'm talking to Brent McNeal from Florida General and they've had this contract. They lost FTEs and they weren't able to get them, but they had the dollars, so they were allowed to contract for positions. So we're going to talk to him about how he did that so that that is timely, too. Well said to lead into that. Well, I appreciate your time today, Dacia. I think it's super cool. I'm really excited about what's going on at Oregon and please do share that dashboard when you get that done.


Dacia: Absolutely.


Carol: Thanks for being on the show and best of luck to you and happy holidays. Coming up, Happy Thanksgiving and all that good stuff.


Dacia: Yes. Well, thanks for the opportunity, Carol. It's always fun to visit with you.



Speaker1: Conversations powered by VR, one manager at a time, one minute at a time, brought to you by the VR TAC for Quality Management. Catch all of our podcast episodes by subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. Thanks for listening!