MN SSB Director's Report

MN SSB Director's Report

By Natasha Jerde

(Editor’s Note: Natasha Jerde, Director of MN State Services for the Blind, was attending the CSAVR/NCSAB meeting in Florida so was not able to speak at our fall convention. She committed to attending the NFBMN spring convention. David Andrews, Chief Technology Officer at State Services for the Blind, presented the following report on her behalf.)

One major part of the interview process for the SSB director position was for me to develop and share my three priorities for the next year. When I returned from adjustment to blindness training, the first thing I set out to do was get feedback from SSB staff. I shared this document with the manager and supervisor team and then with everyone. Now, I would like to share it with you. After outlining these priorities, I’ll give you a quick update of some of what has been happening around SSB.

First, my commitments. As I begin my role as the Director of State Services for the Blind, I want to ground what I do in four key commitments that I will keep with our staff, with customers, with our partners, and with consumer groups like the NFB of Minnesota.

My commitments to you as we implement these priorities include:

  1. Timely, clear, and transparent communication.
  2. Staff and stakeholder involvement in decision making, whenever possible.
  3. A receptiveness to opposing ideas, constructive feedback, and insights on how we can do things differently.
  4. A willingness to take risks, as appropriate and necessary, if the benefits prove to outweigh the costs.

With those commitments in place, here are my priorities:

Priority 1: This is the year of the Communication Center! Three big things are cooking:

  • The Radio Talking Book has been exploring new and innovative ways to reach a wider audience of listeners, including the expansion of live streaming options. This includes the development of iOS and Android apps and the development of an Amazon Alexa skill. These three innovative methods will supplement existing methods of listening to the RTB.
  • The Communication Center uses a system called CCSS to store, update, and report data on customers, orders, and billing. This system has needed to be replaced for several years, but a system replacement comes with a price tag. This year we need to find ways to accomplish this. We fortunately have the former Director of SSB in the Commissioner’s Office who has been helping advocate on our behalf.
  • The Communication Center underwent a performance audit with the Office of Legislative Auditors. We know there are things we need to refine to ensure fiscal accountability and internal controls. We also learned there is a statute (116J.035) that indicates any money we receive needs to be deposited into the state treasury. We want to continue using the Foundation for several reasons (including the awesome challenge grants they have) so we have put in a legislative proposal to be granted an exception.

Priority 2: We will continue to complete and update rules, policies, and procedures to be in alignment with laws and regulations. This isn’t as fun (well, I think it is fun!) but there are a few things we need to do:

  • We will continue the Administrative Rule process for our workforce and senior services units. I started that work, but unfortunately, the Federal monitoring visit took priority. Now that is over, the new Director of Policy and Program Administration (not yet hired) will take that over. The administrative rule process is a detailed blueprint of how we will carry out our responsibilities under the laws that govern our agency.
  • We have learned through staff retirements that succession planning is imperative. One day, far, far away, our fiscal coordinator Chris Johnson will want to retire. As she is the only one of her kind at SSB, we want to begin the development of a Fiscal Handbook so everything that is in her head is put down on paper.
  • The Communication Center may need to implement additional procedures to reflect the audit results.

Priority 3:  All staff have the resources and training they need to do their jobs efficiently and effectively, thus meeting the needs of the individuals we serve. You may have heard the saying “put your own oxygen mask on before helping someone else.” In a way, that is what this priority is about. In order to best meet the needs of the individuals we serve, we must have the resources and training to do our jobs well. This means:

  • Having seamless onboarding for all new staff through comprehensive and thorough training
  • Ensuring our staffing complement reflects the work volume and needs we have. We may need to look at things not how they have been and continue to be, but rather how we want them to look in the future
  • Strictly managing and adhering to our budget so all individuals are able to be served (yes, that means individuals currently on the waiting list,) but at the same time investing in our staff by allocating resources for ongoing training and professional development
  • Looking for opportunities to increase the amount of fiscal resources available to each and every unit, including ways to increase program income from the Social Security Administration
  • Identifying additional partners and community resources that can help us carry out the work we do

As a result of our work on this third priority, the individuals we serve will experience from SSB:

  • Staff who can help them navigate an often bureaucratic process as effortlessly as possible,
  • Timely and professional communication and service delivery,
  • And, a clear understanding of their own roles, responsibilities, and expectations.

As you may know, SSB is part of the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), and over the last few months, the senior leadership team, with input from many DEED employees, has identified the values that will govern our work. The priorities I just laid out name what we will do, and these values determine how we will carry them out. Briefly, these values are:

  • Focus on the customer. We are public servants who strive for fairness and results for the people, businesses, and communities of Minnesota. We build authentic relationships. We listen to the people we serve and consider their feedback in our service delivery.
  • Communicate early and often. We believe in effective communication, honesty and good listening. Great work happens when everyone is clear on where we’re heading and who is doing what. We strive for transparency with the public and our stakeholders.
  • Seek solutions. When a challenge arises, we collaborate across teams and brainstorm ways to solve it. We focus on impact. We choose optimism and get things done.
  • Create inclusion. We actively remove barriers that have historically left people out. We believe we’re far stronger when we are inclusive and equitable. We respect opinions that are different from ours and we seek out diverse perspectives in the planning and execution of our work.
  • Encourage new ideas. We celebrate and encourage creative thinking, giving ourselves the permission to think boldly. We believe its okay to try a new approach; it is the only way to learn and improve.
  • Be gracious. We are honored to serve the people of Minnesota. We approach our work with respect and kindness toward those we work with and for. We elevate each other. This brings joy to our jobs and makes DEED a great place to work.

That’s the big picture. Now, here are some updates from across SSB.

  • October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. We have been partnering with the Commissioner’s Office and Vocational Rehabilitation Services for a variety of events, including an employer recognition breakfast and roundtable on October 10.
  • Jennifer Beilke is working hard on our Comprehensive Statewide Needs Assessment (CSNA) which is a large part of SSB’s portion of the Combined State Plan (a required document under the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act.) She is leading a few subgroups to tackle different areas, including unserved/underserved populations, students and youth, and employer engagement. 

(CSP 101: The Combined State Plan is our State Workforce Development System’s four-year strategy. The Workforce Development System is comprised of federal, state, regional, and local agencies and organizations that provide a range of employment, education, training, and related services and supports to help all job seekers secure good jobs while providing businesses with the skilled workers they need to compete in the global economy. The Governor’s Workforce Development Board is responsible for the coordination of Minnesota’s Plan. The CSNA is required by the vocational rehabilitation programs, and its purpose is to identify gaps in services (basically, what the needs are.) This information is folded into our portion of the plan. The CSP will span from July 1, 2020 through June 30, 2024. It is due to the Department of Labor on or before March 31, 2020.)

  • Monumental news! As of September 24, VRS and SSB have a signed Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Department of Human Services. This MOU lays out responsibilities of each agency if an individual has waivered services. Waivers help pay for a variety of things including long-term supports on the job and personal care. A MOU is just a piece of paper at this point. Over the next year, there will be a communication, implementation, and training plan put in place to help everyone understand what the MOU actually means. We believe this MOU will help better streamline communication and services. Currently, VR staff may not even know the individual’s case manager until the individual is ready to seek employment. Under the new MOU, that coordination would occur even before the Individualized Plan for Employment is developed.
  • The Commissioner has rolled out something called OKRs (Objectives + Key Results + Strategies.) There is an Equity OKR, and each program within the Department is tasked with developing their own unique key results and strategies that focuses on reducing disparities. SSB has two, one for WDU and one for the Communication Center:
    • WDU’s is: We will add 20 minority applicants for vocational rehabilitation services who otherwise would not have applied as a result of statewide outreach with the minority communities.
    • The Communication Center’s is: We will complete four quality-controlled productions (e.g. textbook, podcast, or recorded material) in an alternative language.

Program Services (BEP, SSU, & WDU)

  • Workforce One Connect

The Department of Human Services has provided funding to develop mobile versions of Workforce One, our case management system. These Android and iOS apps will give staff and customers mobile access to Workforce One. MN.IT at DEED was able to take on this work because of the experience with mobile apps they developed by working with us to produce apps for the RTB.

Texas and Ohio are in the process of duplicating our Aging Eyes Initiative. This is a great compliment to SSB for what has become a nationally recognized signature program.

  • We are looking at upgrading the BEP data tracking system. We hope to update the software used to manage the Business Enterprise Program in the near future.

Sheila and the rest of the Pre-ETS Core Team completed our FFY2020 Blueprint. The Blueprint maps out our Pre-ETS initiatives and documents the set-aside determination for spending the 15 percent. What is different this year is the large volume of students we are expecting to come through our doors. This means we are planning to spend more on required activities and less on authorized (authorized are those extra things we can do if we have enough money, such as Blind and Socially Savvy and our podcasting.) We have added two new Pre-ETS programming:

  • Quarterly workplace readiness workshops. The next one will be October 22 from 6 to 8 pm and the topic is budgeting and financial literacy.
  • Entering college freshman program. There will be monthly phone meet and greets as well as campus visits to help problem solve and facilitate college community integration.
  • We just completed our federal fiscal year which is always a busy time of year. Some numbers:
    • SSU served 4,223 individuals, 789 of which from community partners and VLR
    • WDU had 88 competitive integrated employment outcomes
    • WDU successfully came in slightly under budget. If you remember, last year we were in a precarious budget situation, so this is a HUGE deal. The WDU staff worked incredibly hard to ensure individuals still received the services they require while working under some tight internal controls that help us account for every dollar we are spending (this is the big 4: reasonable, allocable, allowable, and necessary)
    • Angela Kraninger is in the beginning stages of the interview process for a counselor in the Metro office but has only received a few applications. This is the replacement for Greg Applekamp who had an amazing job opportunity in private rehabilitation.
    • Lindsey Hanson is still working to fill the counselor position in the Rochester office. We have posted it twice now but have not had any qualified applicants. We are feeling the pinch of a tight labor market and the changing face of vocational rehabilitation. The WDU supervisors have been trying to get creative with marketing and recruitment. [Note that this position has now been filled, and the new staff will begin the first week of January, 2020]
    • John Hulet is in the beginning stages of the interview process for a Deaf Blind Employment Specialist. This position will replace Pam Gowan who will be retiring the beginning of November. [This position has been filled]
    • John Hulet has hired a rehabilitation teacher. This position will be structured similarly to Char in SSU. It is truly meant to fill a need in Greater Minnesota. The rehab teacher will not replace the need for comprehensive adjustment to blindness services but will rather be a supplement or “add on.” This position will also have some role in the coordination of service delivery to our rehab-teaching vendors.
    • Mike Newman is working on posting a St. Cloud VR-Tech position to replace Barb Klein who is now working in SSU.

Communication Center (Audio, Braille, Engineering, and RTB)

  • We have started User Acceptance Testing of our new Radio Talking Book apps. Over the course of the next year, we will be launching our campaign around the new methods for accessing RTB online and via Android/iOS apps. We also will have an Alexa Skill to allow for listening via Echo smart speakers, so you simply need to tell her to play Radio Talking Book and *boom*, you will have it!
  • On Monday September 9, the software used for recording of books and management of most Communication Center processes was moved to a MN.IT-run datacenter. Such a setup is often called “The Cloud.” Now we pay MN.IT a monthly fee and they are responsible for hardware and its replacement, backups, keeping everything running, etc. We did extensive testing prior to the move, and while there were a few minor glitches, they were easily resolved and everything is running well.
  • Two Audio Services staff, Ronnie Washington and Jeremy Hoke, will be attending National Library Service orientation in Washington DC this month. NLS offers this free training to network librarians.
  • As for Braille, they are working on the Tactile Graphics Scanner Project in conjunction with the University of St. Thomas Senior Design Team. Two braillists (Penny Carpenter and Anna Werner) acquired their certifications from the National Library Service in 2016 Braille Formats and Music Braille. This is a huge accomplishment as not many in the country have these certifications.
  • FFY19 Year-end numbers:
    • Braille provided 313,158 Braille pages, or 678 titles, to Minnesota students
    • RTB podcasts had 10,851 hits
    • There were 85 Communication Center books added to BARD, and 12,905 downloads. 3,936,111 print pages were downloaded from BARD
    • There were 442,505 NFB-Newsline® accesses
    • Audio Services transcribed 55,499 print pages and prepared 121,074 pages for recording

For repairs, there were 327 radios, 1,261 digital talking book players, and 13 cassette players