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Development of Partnerships and Collaborations

07/2007

Partnerships are the cornerstone of the Workforce development system, including those between organizations and agencies that support the employment of people with disabilities. Customized Employment and WorkFORCE Action–grantee activities both benefited from building new and stronger partnerships in states and local areas. Understanding these systems' parameters and operating conditions, coming to consensus on common goals, and redefining staff and organizational roles created opportunities on both the direct-service and system levels. Collaborative efforts hinged on attaining a shared understanding among staff at all levels and being able to translate the partnership into formal, tangible goals that positively affected each system and its customers. Regular meetings with formal goal-setting, shared management, implementation of experimental projects, and aggressive sharing of best practices and information typified the best work of grantees in this area. Collaboration became the primary innovation of most of the grant sites, and the foundation of all other systems-change efforts. Whether considering policy, resource allocation, or service integration, effective collaborative efforts were at the base of most of the best practices identified.

Grantees' implementation strategies made a significant impact on partnerships- their members, evolution, and challenges. As these partnerships developed, three general implementation frameworks emerged:

  1. Project activities and service provision stayed primarily with One-Stop staff and management.
  2. Activities were based primarily within the One-Stop, while a disability organization, community rehabilitation provider (CRP), or other entity was responsible for implementing the individual services.
  3. Project activities were primarily based externally, at a CRP.

As a result of the funding parameters, the grant recipients for WorkFORCE Action grants were disability providers and so were more likely to implement the third strategic model.

Regardless of how projects were organized entities within and outside of the Workforce development system had to come to understand their partners before effective collaboration could occur. Interface between the disability-services and the Workforce development systems was often a process of merging cultures and employment philosophy, including a belief in the capacity of people with disabilities to work. Grantees spent varying degrees of time and effort in recognizing differences and coming to consensus on common language, expectations, definitions, and outcomes. Only over time, as partners felt a true spirit of collaboration and mutual benefit, did project goals begin to materialize.

Key Findings

Understanding Partners

Many grantees found that fully understanding their various partners and the parameters under which they functioned was a critical first step in fostering collaboration and interdependence. In partnering across the Workforce development, disability and employer systems, grantees found that each system had its own distinct terminology and definitions for similar activities, making it essential to establish a common language and definitions among partners. Projects also credited co-location, a strong working knowledge of partner systems and their policies, and an understanding of all the employment service providers in the community as beneficial to facilitating effective partnerships.

Building on Preexisting Partnerships

When initiating collaboration, beginning with pre-existing relationships moved efforts forward. Some projects selected their primary subcontractors based on previous relationships and experiences, consistent values, and specific expertise offered, while others found that integrating efforts into existing partnerships or collaborations helped reduce the time needed to establish new relationships at a project's onset. By capitalizing on relationships and accomplishments of previous or current initiatives, projects accessed a friendly entry point from which to build further credibility within new systems.

Identifying Shared Values and a Common Vision

Grantees emphasized the need to identify the shared values that influenced professionals and the agencies they represented. They found that systemic change was as much about changing individual minds as affecting policy, and that before introducing specific employment models or advancing toward systemic change, time first needed to be spent universally promoting the idea that everyone can work. Establishing a cohesive and committed team who shared this vision, and clearly defining goals with apparent beneficial outcomes, helped to build trust, interest, investment, and support among partners. This spirit of cooperation was further supported by identifying the value Customized Employment strategies added to other systems and promoting the broad applicability of those strategies to a larger audience through varying methods of dissemination.

Partnerships Enhanced Through Collaborative Service Delivery

Both the partnerships themselves and progress towards systems change benefited from the collaborative work done on the individual customer level. In many cases, the enthusiasm of staff about their direct work with job seekers and the resulting, tangible best practices is what led to lasting partnerships built on the strength of shared successes and a powerful dissemination practice. In other projects, it was the successful establishment of small businesses for customers with disabilities and the recognition of these meaningful outcomes that acted as a catalyst for broad, local-service partnerships. Also effective was the successful braiding of funds and services for shared customers. Individual customer successes led to formal resource-sharing agreements, helping to build lasting partnerships and foster large-scale systemic and policy change.

Multilevel Partnerships

Though collaborative service delivery was an effective new way to conduct business and promote systems change, state- and federal-level support was also necessary to broaden the scale of the effort. Effective systems change needed to occur at all levels: federal, state, and local. Projects found that strong communication between local and statewide staff and leaders allowed all participants to learn from one another and provided a forum for further networking. To achieve state-level systems change, representatives with decision-making authority over funding and organizational commitment were involved at the onset, and committees engaged in a comprehensive examination of the state employment-service system. The gap between local- and state-level concerns was often bridged by consistent working-group discussions of what had been learned through service delivery.

Developing an Organizational Structure

Those grantees who clearly defined the roles and tasks of partners as the project evolved were able to successfully maintain their commitment and engagement. In some instances, a cohesive relationship was built on a series of collaborative activities, including employment-related initiatives, service-implementation meetings, strategic-planning events, consortium meetings, integration task force meetings, and the establishment of a Workforce Investment Board (WIB) disability advisory council. Other sites found partner-based workgroups to be effective, particularly when they were assisted by an outside facilitator, based on mutually agreed-upon goals, and scheduled to meet regularly. While collaboration techniques varied widely among grantees, all relied on a clear organizational structure in order to achieve their identified goals and outcomes.

Partnership Challenges and Strategies

Although sites successfully developed partnerships and collaborative relationships, some challenges arose in the process that grantees needed to resolve in order to move forward. These challenges are detailed below.

Multiple and Complex Partners

Grantees recognized the need to understand their partners - both internal and external to the One-Stop system - to most effectively maximize the benefit of their resources for both customers and the system. One site developed a comprehensive resource manual that identified the array of employment resources available to customers, including mandated and non-mandated partners within the system, the services they provided, eligibility criteria, and funding opportunities. A monthly training program was developed in another location to help One-Stop service providers better understand their community partners. Through the program, various entities educated their partners on the range of services they provided, the populations they served, and opportunities for further collaboration. Another broad-scale project procured interagency experts to conduct community-resource mapping, which resulted in a strategic-action plan to help the site work more collaboratively and efficiently, and to develop cost-sharing strategies (such as braided and blended funding) around employment supports.

Maintaining Partner Engagement

It was sometimes challenging to maintain partner commitment and engagement throughout the life of a project. Joint strategic planning was found to be an effective strategy for utilizing available expertise and maintaining partnership engagement for the lifespan of a project. Such planning most often included a vision statement, guiding principles, goals, strategies, and recommended actions. One site found that in addition to there being one consistent representative from each partner program, expanding to several representatives from each partner, when possible, instilled a greater sense of ownership, reduced reliance on any single person within the organization, and expanded the number of resources available to achieve goals. In other locations, strategic-planning committees populated by key constituents at decision-making levels often resulted in city- or state-level systems change. As a result of this multiple-constituent effort, not only were desired goals related to serving customers with disabilities identified but also links within the community were expanded to accommodate ongoing investment in and support of this shared vision. Other approaches included involving a range of leaders from multiple internal and external systems; developing disability councils as Local Workforce Investment Board (LWIB) subcommittees; creating a very active business advisory council as a subcommittee of the WIB, and the formation of a steering committee to focus on a state-level systems-change campaign.

Impacting the Way Systems "Do Business"

Developing partnerships are often challenged by changes in the fundamental make-up of the partnering organizations, a situation further exacerbated by funding cuts and staff turnover. Such changeability heightens the need for additional training, continued technical assistance, and quality-assurance monitoring to support and sustain Customized Employment services within agencies. Otherwise, these services may be diffused to the point of ineffectiveness and result in lesser outcomes.

In several communities, grantees made a concerted effort to enhance the capacity of One-Stops and CRPs to provide employment services to job seekers with disabilities by providing regular training on Customized Employment practices and disability issues to these entities. Another site created Customized Employment services training for One-Stop staff, state agencies, and community service providers to ensure that the quality of services was high. Through a "Service Provider Consortium," providers could access a range of staff training on a regular basis, including Customized Employment approaches, effective employer relationships, and other practices that improve the overall quality of service delivery. Because training and short-term technical assistance may not be enough to modify long-standing practices, oversight and quality-assurance checks are critical to assisting partners adopt new practices.

Systematizing Service-Delivery Arrangements

In a number of sites, challenges emerged around mutual understandings and service-delivery arrangements. To address this issue, grantees created various clear, written agreements - both formal and informal - that recorded common objectives as well as interdependent roles and responsibilities. In one instance, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was developed between a local WIB and a mental health provider that helped both entities become more fully aware of the mutually beneficial nature of their relationship. Another MOU was exchanged between a One-Stop and the public Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) agency to counteract a prior lack of clearly outlined objectives and responsibilities. And, through the development of a Purchase of Service Agreement with VR, another site ensured access to Customized Employment approaches for recipients of VR services.

Limited Partner Resources

No single partner or source of funding can adequately respond to the spectrum of needs of individuals with disabilities and other complex needs. Moreover, at times, changes in partners' working environments impacted their ability to contribute services to the project. Decreases in program funding for employment service providers increased staff turnover and reduced overall staff levels. Generally speaking, the additional up-front exploration, planning, and job-development time needed to provide quality Customized Employment services was as a concern for partners, who had to decide between providing services themselves or deferring customers to alternate agencies, such as VR. Several projects helped ameliorate these challenges by implementing multiple-partner, customized-support teams, while others assisted customers who had significant support needs through person-centered-planning techniques. These strategies lessened the strain on any one partner's resources through a shared-delivery approach.

Recommendations

Position One-Stops as the hub of local collaborative efforts.

One-Stop Career Centers are a natural hub around which partnerships and collaborations among public and private service providers, businesses, and consumer groups can operate. An attitude that encourages collaborative efforts should be an element of operation in every One-Stop, exemplified by management, staff training, and public outreach. Based on positive grantee experiences, the following are some steps a local One-Stop can take to institutionalize collaboration:

Engage leaders as a key element of collaboration and systems change.

Leaders from every system should engage in collaborative efforts at the local level. Buy-in and understanding on the part of leaders is essential to the success of long-term, effective collaborations.

Toward this end, WIB and One-Stop administration should create a guide to engage WIB members to some extent in the functions of the One-Stop. Unlike leaders in other employment systems, WIB members are frequently businesspeople who have little knowledge of the realities of Workforce development agencies and organizations. Too frequently, the WIBs are used as review boards for policies and practices in which they are not truly engaged rather than as genuine partners. It is the responsibility of One-Stop staff to provide these boards with appropriate opportunities to exercise real control and provide real contributions. Points of engagement could include:

Seek to engage a broad range of potential partners and creative partnership arrangements.

Each partner represents a unique contribution of resources and expertise. One-Stops should be open to the widest possible range of partners, and to accommodating a creative variety of partnership modes, with the intention of becoming the center of a network of cooperative resources. For example, faith-based organizations and legal-aid services brought resources to many One-Stops that had not previously been available and that helped address other needs that affected an individual's potential ability to pursue work. The level of partners' commitment varied as well. Some entities provided time-limited activities through a referral process. Others established a regular presence in the One-Stop so they could serve their customers in a universal setting and be available for questions or quick referrals.

Engage partners in regular, focused, and goal-oriented communication.

Without overloading staff or partner schedules, regular (monthly, bimonthly, or quarterly) meetings held with partner management and staff are an important means to continually build, refresh, and enliven collaboration. This model typically evolves out of shared activities or projects, but the habit of communication can be as meaningful as the activities of the project itself. Absent a specific project (such as a grant), these meetings can be used to establish and promote common goals between collaborating organizations. Activities might include special projects, a jointly managed caseload, or developing a mutually determined list of goals for systemic change. In essence, groups should aim to make consistent, goal-oriented communication a feature of standard operation.

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