Workforce Innovation Fund: Lessons Learned So Far
Over the past several months, a group of five workforce development intermediaries have engaged with representatives of the twenty-six Workforce Innovation Fund grantees, in order to initiate a comprehensive program of technical assistance (TA) services. Our TA coaches work with grantees to identify specific areas where project implementation may benefit from the provision of resources or assistance from a representative of our pool of subject matter experts. Coaches also seek to identify projects that are working on similar issues, in hopes of growing a community of learning in which grantees seeking answers can learn from grantees that have developed solutions to their questions.
Providing TA to twenty-six projects spread across the nation, each with its own unique combination of partners, goals and designs, is a daunting task. However, despite the breadth of topics the projects address, our coaches have identified a few important challenges that are pervasive across projects as staffs work to implement their visions. In our effort to share lessons learned from the experiences of the Workforce Innovation Fund grantees, this post will discuss three of these pervasive challenges: 1) partnership, 2) data-sharing, and 3) fear.
One of the critical challenges faced by many grantees is how to strengthen engagement with and maintain the commitment of various project partners, particularly when some partners receive no direct or indirect funding for their contributions towards successful implementation. Many of the projects seek to bring about systems change, as opposed to narrowly targeted performance outcomes for specific populations of job-seekers. Systems change in the public workforce system often requires local or regional organizations to secure the support of state-level agencies who hold some of the regulatory authority and access to information that must be tapped in order to implement strategies that realign programs, services and personnel to produce results in a more efficient and sustainable manner. Our TA coaches are actively working with grantees to promote and document strategies for securing and advancing the collective impact of partnerships beyond the award of funding.
In an effort to share ideas with the larger public workforce system on the importance of crafting strong partnerships to achieve improvements in services and outcomes, we are offering multiple virtual training opportunities for grantees, staff, and team members.
Several Workforce Innovation Fund grantees are developing and testing new online data management systems, or online client management and service delivery tools, which seek to integrate workforce data and other information across organizations to promote a culture of data-driven decision making in their regions. Some of the projects, like those in Chicago and Newark contemplate innovation on a regional level. Others seek to scale their innovations, over time, into statewide practices. Through initial assessment and conversations with project staff, our coaches have identified a number of challenges that any workforce partnership will face when attempting to improve management, services or outcomes through the implementation of new online data systems or tools.
The challenges shared by current grantees may be separated in to the following categories:
- Getting the right product: how to identify the functionalities a new system or tool needs to help you achieve your desired outcomes, and how to properly procure the experts or vendors that design, build or deliver the online product(s) you seek;
- Data-sharing agreements: how to navigate the partnership and legal hurdles to obtaining the information you need to use new systems and tools as intended;
- Moving from product to practice: how to train frontline staff on use of new systems and tools, and strategies for making data-based decision-making; and
- Sustainability:how to maintain the systems or tools, and sustain the changes to decision-making, client management or service structures after the lifecycle of the grants.
As we work with grantees to identify promising practices that address each of these challenges, we invite practitioners from across the public workforce system to share your insights and experiences with us. Plans are underway for the development of a webinar training to be offered in mid-April on these data-sharing challenges and the strategies for success.
Experience has shown me that fear is probably the most pervasive barrier to innovation in all fields of human endeavor. Fear shifts our focus from what is possible to what is not possible; it causes us to raise walls for protection, rather than knock walls down for progress, and it favors inaction that prevents us from moving beyond the status quo. Fear accompanies change wherever people and their jobs are involved, but the good news is that both change and fear can be managed. The Workforce Innovation Fund grantees should produce many outstanding case studies of how workforce development professionals and their partners can successfully innovate without fear.
When you think about why people fear anything, the reasons (at least the rational ones) usually boil down to one of two things: 1) past experience or 2) the unknown. Our TA coaches have been able to identify some of the fears that project staffs are working to overcome, and the above maxim seems to hold true. Most of the fears that threaten innovation in these projects are born out of past experience, which actually tends to be the past experience-by-proxy of some other workforce practitioner, or general lack of familiarity on the part of some critical partner with a particular topic or element of the project design.
For example, multiple projects have raised concerns that improper procurement procedures, gathering of participant documentation, or failure to obtain a waiver might ultimately derail their projects and bring harmful consequences to project partners. Project staffs cite corrective actions taken by federal or state agencies in the past, and their progress towards implementation is stymied by fear of incurring similar penalties. In other examples, we hear of project partners that support an innovative approach to service delivery when proposals are crafted, but become more fearful of fully participating after the award is made. Turning concepts into action elevates the fear that doing business in a new way might expose inefficiencies that jeopardize staff or funding for partner organizations. Neither situation bodes well for advancing innovation in the public workforce system, so we advocate for creating an environment that supports the goals of the Workforce Innovation Fund.
Workforce Innovation Fund grantees have access to an incredibly supportive network of federal project officers (FPOs,) who are dedicated to helping grantees remain true to their project designs, while also promoting the successful achievement of project outcomes, and compliance with federal laws and regulations. Working in concert with FPOs, and representatives of the National Evaluation Coordinator, our TA coaches are dedicated to eliminating fear as a barrier to innovation by delivering learning opportunities and practicing sharing that makes the unknown, known, and that shows what can be done.
The Workforce Innovation Fund represents an exciting opportunity for the greater public to learn about what works in workforce development, and how we can continuously improve the public workforce system in years to come. Innovation takes courage and confidence. There are twenty-six workforce entities at the heart of these grants, but they are not standing alone. The success of each project depends on the trust, commitment and ongoing support of a network of partners and agencies at the local, state and federal levels.