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Aug 16, 2021

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In episode 4 of Manager Minute, Bill Robinson, Director of the Michigan Bureau of Services for Blind Persons, and Cora McNabb, Executive Director at the Kentucky Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, join Carol Pankow, host of Manager Minute, to lend their experiences on navigating the critical DSA/DSU relationship so that VR’s mission doesn’t slip through the cracks.


Learn how Bill and Cora dealt with the challenges and the most significant challenges they faced. These challenges included cultural challenges and keeping the blind agency identity alive. Find out how the mergers are going today and what Bill and Cora share about the successful strategies that worked for their agencies.


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Full Transcript:

VRTAC-QM Manager Minute: Bridging the Gap Between the DSA and the DSU so that VR’s Mission Doesn’t Slip Through the Cracks.


Speaker1: Manager MINUTE brought to you by the VRTAC for quality management conversations powered by V.R., one manager at a time, one minute at a time. Here is your host, Carol Pankow.


Carol: Well, welcome to the Manager Minute. Today, I'm joined by Bill Robinson, director of the Michigan Bureau of Services for Blind Persons, and Cora McNabb, executive director at the Kentucky Office of Vocational Rehabilitation. I know you are both so busy. Bill, you're the president of NCSAB and Cora, you're in the midst of federal monitoring right now. So thanks so much for taking the time to come on the show. So, Bill, how are you and how are things in Michigan?


Bill: It's great to be here. And I want to thank you for this opportunity.  In Michigan, we've actually returned to the field as of July 12. And so our line rehab instructors or field teachers are out there serving the blind VR customers and pre-employment transition customers. And then our training center has been open and our counselors are also seeing people in person. We're hoping to continue that and continue to serve our customers.


Carol: Very cool. Good to hear you're back. I'm sure folks are really enjoying that in-person training and interaction. So, Cora, always a pleasure to talk with you. How's it going in the Bluegrass State of Kentucky?


Cora: Carol, it's going great. Like Bill here. As of June 11th, we went back to in-person services and brought everybody back. Everyone's on a hybrid schedule that they're all working and serving individuals. Both of our centers are open and serving individuals, day students. But we haven't brought anyone back residentially as yet. And we have been talking about it. And of course, the rise in numbers is concerning. And so we would make sure we do the right thing. And then, as you said, we're in the middle of federal monitoring. So things have been very busy here.


Carol: Things are happening for sure. Well, I thought of you both as we're unpacking the topic today of navigating the critical DSA and DSU relationship so that VR's mission doesn't slip through the cracks. I know both of you have undergone changes in the past five years and have some really good expertise to lend to this topic. Both of you oversee a designated state unit that is housed within a larger designated state agency. Bill, you came from a recent change in DSA’s and Cora, you just lived through the combining of the blind and general agency as well in the last three years. I was doing a little digging and since 2014, there have been two states where the VR agencies combined the blind and the general together and 12 agencies moved DSAs with you being the 12th, 10 of those DSA moves were to the workforce Labor Department. So it does make some sense. And coinciding with the foundation that was set by WIOA that really forced the issue for VR to partner with the other core partners. The VRTAC for Quality Management is working on a webinar in conjunction with RSA to unpack the Technical Assistance Circular 12-03, which is organizational structure and non-delegable responsibility of the DSU for the VR program, and then also TAC 13-02, which is reorganization of the DSA and DSU for the VR program, and we hope to have that webinar out this fall. So, Bill, I want to start with you. Can you tell us a little bit about the change you most recently lived through with your shift in DSAs? And where were you located before? And where are you now?


Bill: We started out in a State Department that was very unique for rehabilitation. It was the Licensing and Regulatory Affairs Department. So we were asking, hey, this is great being in this department. The department was very supportive, but at the same time, it was kind of interesting because we really didn't have much to do with licensing businesses or regulatory affairs, but yet there we were. And so when the governor changed over to the new administration, so we went from Republican to Democrat, the new administration looked at some reorganizations and the move ended up going from law or licensing and regulatory affairs to the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity.


Carol: So you're one of those labor moves as well? That's interesting. Yeah, really interesting that you started out. I don't think I've heard of any other state agency being in a department quite like you were in Bill.


Bill: Yeah, it was kind of interesting. And our general agency was actually in DHS. So neither of us were really sitting at labor at the time.


Carol: Cora, I can still remember back when Kentucky was going through the idea of combining the blind in general agency, and I remember that was going on for quite some time while the fine details were worked out. And unlike Bill's situation, your situation was a little different in that your two separate agencies were now combining together under one DSA. So can you tell us a little bit about the changes you went through and what designated state agency you are under?


Cora: We are under the Department of Education and Workforce in Kentucky and it did go on for quite a while. We actually took our time in combining the two agencies and involved a lot of the stakeholder groups that were involved, especially the blind advocacy organizations. And of course, I had been with the blind agency for at that time around 12 years. So we wanted to make sure that we protected those specialized services. And so we worked together. And about the time that we merged and combine the two agencies, they decided to abolish our fiscal unit in our agency and they moved it to the Department of Workforce. They moved it under the department later, which a couple of years later down the road, they actually moved it to a cabinet level. And so we had more change. But that resulted in the loss of a lot of veteran staff and veteran knowledge. So we not only went under a combining of two agencies, we also went under an additional change that involved our fiscal unit at that time.


Carol: Wow. I know you've lived through a lot there, so I want to take you back to that moment. You were notified the change was definitely going to happen. How were you notified? Cora, I'm going to start with you. And how much lead time were you given saying, all right, we're going to combine these agencies now?


Cora: Well, we knew that there were some discussions that were occurring. And at the time, the leadership was they also at that time? Well, it was a little bit later. They also moved adult Ed under the workforce program. But they wanted to have all the workforce programs under one department, which they were successful in doing at that time. And then also they wanted to centralize the operations, those back door operations. So we had kind of heard the rumors a few months before they actually approached us and told us about it. So at that time, I had a call with the Rehab Services Administration and the commissioner of workforce at that time was on the call and I was on the call along with Becky Cabe, whom at that time I was the interim director over at the blind agency, and Becky Cabe was the interim director over the general agency. So they talked to us in person. And then we had a call with our RSA to inform them of the changes.


Carol: So, Bill, how about you? How were you notified and how much lead time were you given?


Bill: That's a pretty funny story. In June of 18, the general agency director and I were giving a presentation for the leadership forum for CSAVR. And I had just finished on stage and was stepping down and my cell phone goes off and it's my immediate department director of Laura calling me and she says, hey, you're going to see a press release in about a half an hour, then announces the fact that you're moving from LARA to this new Department of Labor and economic opportunity. And I was like, oh, how is this going to work? So it was a complete surprise to me and the general agency director.


Carol: Holy smokes, Bill. That is a crazy story. So you literally found out with a half hour notice that boom, you're moving.


Bill: Yes. And then that was June. And the actual moving day for the department was August 12 and the fiscal year for us ended September 30th. So we just had a couple of months to try to figure out what the heck are we going to do here? Plus, we were looking at two closings within our fiscal year and we didn't know how that was going to work.


Carol: Holy smokes. Cora, I know you said you had reached out to RSA right away. Bill, did you reach out to RSA right away to help you with this move?


Bill: I think I was in such shock that the general director and I got together and we just got our teams together and pulled out that TAC 13-02 and started going through it together as. Leadership on both sides. We also had contacted RSA to set up a joint call. I don't know if I remember calling, but I called as many directors as I could that had gone through something like this. I know I talked to Alan McClain at the time because Arkansas was in the middle of it. And I talked to Cheryl Fuller, who was about two years into it. So I was reaching out to everybody at that point.


Carol: Smart move. I know in I work on the webinar we're developing, we're stressing how important it is to involve RSA early to ensure that that transition can happen smoothly and that all your bases are covered. Things like you got to change the state plan and ensuring your grant award is set up so you can draw down money in a new agency and more so what were one or two of the biggest challenges that you had to overcome and I'm going to start with you.


Cora: I think that because we were not very happy about them moving our fiscal unit. And so we did have a conversation about that, but we knew that it was going to happen. So the best thing that you can do is figure out how you can make it work and for your agency to get through the changes and accomplish what you need to. And we did work with our state liaison at RSA through the whole thing. And it is a lot of work to get your state plan updated and depending on when needed, your comprehensive needs assessment, all of that things don't always come together and match the way that you would like them to. So you just have to figure out what the best way is to make it work. And then I think it was probably involving the stakeholders in the process because it was a really difficult for the staff to come through those changes and adjust.


Carol: Yeah, I can imagine that was really tough dealing with all of that. So, Bill, how about for you? What are one or two of the biggest challenges you had to overcome in this move?


Bill: Well, I would echo some of what Cora said and just build off of that, because the short time frame we had, we had to really get moving in. RSA was very helpful in that process. Our state liaison, the fiscal folks at that point, there was not a RSA commissioner. So we were working closely with Carol Dobak as well as our liaison staff. And I think Cora touched on one key point is that for staff, this is a big change. And we had to over communicate with staff. We had, like we said, we have to open up the state portal for the state plan amendment. We had to communicate to our stakeholders. We have to ensure our vendors that they would get paid despite the kind of awkward closing within a fiscal year and how that was going to work. And then we had to make sure our counselors and our staff understood how to stop services within one period of performance and take that little six week period of performance that we had to the end of the grant year and make sure that that was handled correctly. So logistically, there was just a lot of logistics and we actually had spreadsheets and checklists and all kinds of a set up. And we were running that stuff by RSA and our fiscal folks and collaborating with our general agency to make sure we're on the same page. And that we were not missing something. So it was a lot of communication and collaboration.


Carol: But I think your background was well suited then with your accounting background for dealing with all of that, because you had that added weird complexity of that little bit of time, you know, where the switch over in the period of performance and all of that. So you knew how to address that. I don't think everybody could have done that.


Bill: Yeah, I think also in my business experience, I was in charge of a lot of mergers and acquisitions with different companies and would take operational control of the acquired entity before merging. And then this was no different than a merger or acquisition. And you're putting together organizations that don't know each other very well and accounting systems that are different, procedures that are different. It's really it can be overwhelming. And I think the checklist certainly helped.


Carol: I'm glad- glad to hear that. So I know many times when we think a change, I think we think about change at a higher level. We think about those concrete things, such as change in structure or the hierarchy. We think about changes in the fiscal activities like you were talking about Bill, and all of those are relevant considerations, but it's also critical to consider those smaller, abstract, but really important details, such as the shift in culture. So to start with, you might imagine that combining of two of our agencies has completely altered the identity of blind services in Kentucky. Cora, can you speak to that is a huge shift?


Cora: And we had separate agencies, separate policies and practices. Sure, both of us were a VR agency but it was very different. We had two separate categories for order of selection, so we had to look at that and come up with the best of the best in moving forward is how we kind of presented it to the staff. There was a huge loss of at least the staff felt like from the blind agency, a loss of identity. They spoke of that quite often. And I would try to emphasize with them that you're the same. The services that you're delivering are the same. So the only way that you can lose your identity is if you lose who you are. And you're not going to do that because the consumers are still there and you're still serving them. So that was probably one of the most difficult things. And they talked a lot about how even now there are still things that come up and there are still things that we're dealing with. And they mentioned obviously we always hear there isn't enough communication. But I realize that for the staff that we're in the smaller agency, communication happened a lot differently in the smaller agency than it does in the large general agency. And so a lot of times when they would say that we're seeing that smaller organizational feeling of family that was there. So that's a big thing for individuals to adjust to. And then they want to make sure that you still emphasize how important those specialized skills are so that they don't lose that sense of who they are in their profession and what they do.


Carol: I love that you said that, Cora, and you were the right person to be in that role with that transition. You came from that blind agency. All of us here came from that kind of blind agency experience. And we get that small sense of family and rolling in. I just love that you were we're talking with staff about not losing themselves and what they do and how critical that was. So you both were in the right place at the right time with this move. So, Bill, you were able to maintain your identity, but has your culture shifted in any way due to the reorganization into a new DSA?


Bill: Yeah, I don't know if our culture shifted because we've had a really good culture. When I came on board, we kind of did a shift at that point. And we've stayed true to our mission, vision and core values. But what was interesting is we had to shift in terms of how we communicate with our department and also how we work with our department. And just to give you an example and common touch, small, specialized services, which certainly is where VR is and especially where blindness, as I remember sitting down in a team with the new department director and I was talking to him about our services and I mentioned the training center where we do adjustment to blindness and we serve two hundred and fifty one and the prior fiscal year. And he looked at me and said, two hundred and fifty one thousand. I said, oh no, no, two hundred and fifty one individuals. And it is kind of that work force kind of thought where we serve the masses. Whereas Cora pointed out VR is very specialized services, especially blindness services. And because the specialization, we look at the individual and we're laser focused on the needs of the individual and customizing those services around the individual, where I think from workforce standpoint, it's more about how many people can we serve and what kind of mass data can we accumulate to tell our story. That was kind of the cultural shift for me. When he said two hundred and fifty one thousand, I said, well, wait a minute, I think we're going to have to have more discussions.


Carol: Oh, yeah. I bet that was a big shift for the DSA folks when they're talking about that. I came from a workforce agency too, and I always remember the people in Title one your and the Wagner Peyser side, when you think they've got massive numbers of people they're dealing with and our small numbers of consumers. They just they didn't always get that we did so we led a little exercise with our DSA staff where we had them actually just do a little simulated exercise under sleep shades. And it was led by one of our instructors. And it was really interesting just to give them a little peek into what we were dealing with. And it did help. It helped that whole group have a little better understanding of what we were about, thinking about all the changes you've both undergone, both larger concrete changes, also smaller abstract changes like culture shifting. How did you navigate through the challenges you faced and what were some successful strategies you used? And, Bill, I'm going to start with you.


Bill: The biggest thing I could think or recommend to individuals is you have to communicate, communicate and communicate. And really, you're looking at all your customers from internal customers to external customers to your stakeholders and your community partners. And you're really having to make sure that there's an understanding of how this is all going to work. And also, you know, I move to labor with the other core of your WIOA partners was very impactful and could be for the future and for a positive spin on that. That was a really great thing. And to be co-located with our general agency as well. We thought there was some really good things that came out of this. But one of the things I think was helpful was RSA and the problem solving that they engaged with us as well as just our DSA and helping us in that transition process and then the whole collaborative effort that it took.


Carol: I can't think of a better person to do that, Bill, than you like. You are the master at communication and collaboration for sure. So Cora, how about you? What were some successful strategies that you used?


Cora: I think that we tried to be as transparent as possible. We tried to share and involve everybody as much as possible in the processes. We made sure the field staff were involved in the policy development and the state rehab council. So I think that keeping it as simple as possible, I think probably knowing that you're not going to make everybody happy no matter what you do. We certainly had a lot of problem solving and decision making that we had to make. And you have to sit with that and be comfortable with it because you just can't please everybody and not everyone is going to come through on the other side after you're like that and all that change. You have those people that have a difficult time dealing with change anyway, but maybe do the best that you can and just know that there are going to be people that aren't going to be happy. And you can do a lot of time trying to make them happy and they're never going to get to that happy place. So you can hope that they'll maybe go somewhere else and find that happiness. Those would be the two things that I would remember from everything like that.


Carol: I really like that. So. So I know some time has passed now since all of this happened for both of you, cause I think you've been in there like three years now and I think it's been over a year for you. So how are things going now? Cora, I'm going to have you take that one first.


Cora: Well, I did mention the year that are combining of the agency was in two thousand and eighteen, so we did it effective October 1st 2018. So we are now three years past. And I think that you have to give yourself time because you'll have list after list after list. You have to do this. You want to begin to check things up. But I think we've tried to take our time. We do have policies that we're still working on, still writing policies and procedures, still working on the vendor process. Lots of things that we have in play. And one of the things that happened with the fiscal reorganized mentioned that then a couple of years later, they moved the fiscal operations to a cabinet level. And now we've undergone another reorg in our cabinet where they split the workforce programs. And so part of them are under labor and then part of us under the department and in the Department of Workforce. So that's been a major upheaval that's just happened over the last year or so. It was more change, and especially with the fiscal operations the way that they were, there were a lot of things that. The cracks because of how complicated the VR program is, still trying to pick up the pieces of that as well, and then by them doing another reorg where they have moved part of the program under labor, they moved to line Wagner Peyser, farmworker,  veterans, but they moved the operations under the Department of Workforce. It's kind of split right down the middle. So that's change that culture from what it was 30 years ago. So we're still undergoing lots of changes and then you put the pandemic on top of that. So just a lot of changes. And we've had to be very, very flexible even when we weren't happy about it.


Carol: So how has that impacted you with the partnership? So it seems like they wanted to have the people all together and now you're sort of split up again, which is really interesting. How's that going with partnerships?


Cora: Well, I think the partnerships on the local level have continued. It's probably more on a state level where there are still lots of things to be worked out and it's kind of in flux. But then with the onset of the pandemic, it's disrupted things as well. So right now, it's kind of hard to tell exactly what will be there after the clouds clear, you might say. We're dealing with so many different big factors that are going on.


Carol: Sure. And I completely understand that. So, Bill, how about you in times past? So how are things going now?


Bill: Yeah, so it was probably been about a little over two years and really the first eight months or so. And the new department was really about the new department just adjusting, everybody adjusting, because there was a lot of movement of not only V.R. but other agencies. And then as we had that first full year, I think the main thing was that we found like at the higher level working on the MOU use that we were all interested in, those seemed to work very smoothly because everybody was under the same umbrella department. The one thing that I think was the benefit of the pandemic was we were so new to each other. The pandemic increased all this extra communication via teams and the ability to meet more often. And so all of a sudden, we're getting to know each other better, even down to the counselor level. We're starting to know each other and the other programs a lot better. And I think that's been one of the benefits, as well as the fact that being in the Department of Labor during the pandemic with a lot of states were cutting other programs in the Pentagon or wherever it was, they were not immune to that. Our area was somewhat protected because labor was so important in terms of coming out of the pandemic. So it's going well. I mean, we're still learning from each other and we still have our growing pains, but it's going pretty well.


Carol: That's good to hear. That's good to hear. At least there were some upsides from the pandemic as well. Holy cow. So looking back on all this, what we've talked about, are there any other lessons you've learned or any words of wisdom you have for folks out there that might be facing this? Because it seems like this is a continued trend if the state hasn't done it yet. There are these continued moves that keep happening over time. So, Bill, I'm going to I'm going to give you the floor on any other parting words of wisdom.


Bill: Well, great. Thank you. I was just reading an article about successful business the other day. It wasn't about the structure or where the business grew out of. It was about serving the customer. The bottom line was, if you're serving the customer, you will be successful. I think the main thing is for us wisdom. I would pass on to anybody going through this to be true to yourself. Make sure that your mission as vocational rehabilitation does not get lost in this process. And also there's mission creep and mission drift. And it's easy to get into a new department. And there's a lot of excitement, a lot of other things going on. And you can have mission creep and mission drift. But if you're serving your customer and you're staying true to that, your mission, I think you can come out of these types of reorganizations really well.


Carol: I had a write that down-mission creep and mission drift. I like that. Holy cow. That's a good thing. Yeah, I love that. Good words for folks. How about you, Cora? Any parting words of wisdom?


Cora: And I think that Bill said. Very well, and that's really what I tried to emphasize, what we merged into the two agencies, that you're still here, you're still serving people and people are still benefiting from those services. I think that it's important you can dig your heels in and resist or you can work with everyone that's around you to make the change and make it work. And I think that's very important that you work together collaboratively to figure it out and make it work for the VA program.


Carol: Well, as always, it was such a pleasure to speak with you both. I sincerely hope that today's conversation helps our community think about navigating that DSA relationship.  We hope to see gaps bridged in a meaningful way. Thank you so much for joining us, and have a great day.



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