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Tracking Employment Outcomes for Individuals with Disabilities

Introduction

State departments responsible for placement of individuals with disabilities into the workforce routinely struggle with data collection, relying on dated manual processes when communicating with third-party providers and placement agencies. In recent years, state governments have launched a variety of systems-change efforts aimed at improving competitive, integrated employment outcomes of youth and adults with significant disabilities.

This priority is reflected in the national movement called Employment First, a framework for systems change centered on the premise that individuals with disabilities, including those with the most significant disabilities, are capable of full participation in competitive, integrated employment and community life. In response to this approach, many states have formally initiated their focus on Employment First through an official legislative action and through implementation of state systems change and provider transformation to generate an Employment First framework. Many states did not have the capacity to facilitate this effort and applied for technical assistance under Department of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) Employment First State Leadership Mentoring Program (EFSLMP) that EconSys has managed since 2011.

Because of these challenges, states are not always able to obtain accurate numbers on various reporting elements surrounding placements needed by EFSLMP and their own state Employment First Initiatives (EFI). Existing software solutions were limited in scope and functionality, and often not configured for state government use or states used paper-based methods to collect data. However, these methods are inefficient and unscalable.

As a result, EconSys developed the Program Outcome Reporting Tool (PORT) that allows for state providers to input their data collection. This data can then be compiled and presented to the state leadership through various statistical measurements. The web-based tool can be accessed anywhere with an Internet connection and data can be compiled on an individual, provider, region, or state level, within any specified timeline. State governments turned to EconSys to support their efforts to improve employment-related data collection on individuals with disabilities and track key metrics in their Employment First programs.

The Problem

State agencies are faced with an unprecedented volume of data, and in many cases, don’t have the tools needed to effectively capture and organize that data for reporting on employment outcomes for individuals with disabilities. The gap between the tools being used and the output required means ineffective data evaluation, lack of standards between providers, and lack of follow through from providers who report data for each state.

These challenges include:

  • Manual Data Collection Processes. Currently, many state employment agencies and their data providers still use Excel spreadsheets to collect and organize data. Spreadsheets make it difficult to capture a large volume of data in a standard format, while ensuring all stakeholders have the access needed for reporting.
  • Lack of Continuity. Because data collection was previously fax or email based, data can be lost when someone leaves an organization. Spreadsheets can disappear or not be updated to the most current data. Most providers have just one person providing data – when that person leaves, there can be a gap in continuity that causes problems.
  • Lack of Standards Between Providers. When using manual processes, different providers can format their data however they deem fit, which can create additional work for agency specialists who then need to either standardize it in some way within their spreadsheets, or struggle with analysis due to the inconsistencies.
  • Inability to Evaluate Data Consistently or Effectively. With a manual process and a lack of consistent standards among providers, evaluation and reporting becomes a burden for agency specialists already tight on time. Not only is data at times incomplete, but the reporting produced is limited in scope to high-level aggregation.
  • Low Participation Rates Among Providers. When only a small number of providers collect and share data with state agencies, it limits visibility into the program. This presents additional challenges for states whose job it is to justify the funding of these programs based on performance. Incomplete data neither proves nor disproves program effectiveness.
In addressing these problems, the following questions needed to be addressed:
  1. How do we ensure continuity of data collection when someone leaves the provider organization? Access to Excel data, configuration of that data, and processes for submitting it must be standardized and localized so that when an individual leaves a provider organization, there is not data loss or slowdown in collection.
  2. How do we report on the performance of these programs and justify their funding? Reporting must be sufficiently detailed to provide key insights into what works, allowing the state to justify the cost of these programs. Not only must data meet Department of Labor reporting requirements; it should show individual-level insights into the program’s effectiveness.
  3. What will enable us to scale and collect data more frequently?
  4. What tools, resources, and processes will overcome the current obstacles to scale the program, work with more providers, and act on data as it is provided on a regular basis?

The Solution

The EconSys PORT tool was selected by several states to support data collection efforts because it is an effective, affordable solution, specifically designed for each state government’s program. It is not part of a bigger and more complex system that is difficult to use that does not consider the specific needs and nature of government. Many state leads and coordinators were never asked to have this level of accountability for their programs. With the increased need to justify their programs and current efforts, EconSys proved to be a strong partner in these efforts with its extensive background in working with government, including six-plus years working with states in DOL’s ODEP EFSLMP to improve data collection efforts. In addition to providing a configurable solution for their data collection needs, EconSys offers support for coordinators who don’t have a background in data, helping them to set more uniform standards and improve the very practices required to use the tool efficiently.

Handling of Personally Identifiable Information

One of the primary concerns state agencies have is that personally identifiable information (PII) will be accessible or visible to third-parties such as EconSys. We’ve engineered our data collection tool to never actively hold or process PII. Each state handles this process differently. Tennessee, for example, uses a code that providers submit their data to states for everyone to get paid. The provider knows the code and the state can process each case based on the code, but it anonymizes PII for individuals being reported. As such, EconSys can ensure all data is handled securely and with minimal risk to PII.

The basic shell in the EconSys PORT can be configured and optimized to match the specific needs of each state. Determining how best to configure the tool to meet the needs of each state is done throughout a three-step process:

Step 1 - Initial Interview

During the initial interview with the state agency, EconSys consultants gather information about current data collection efforts. EconSys has a set of questions used to gauge data collection frequency, the scale of the data collection efforts, short and long-term goals, and how current providers are reporting data.

Step 2 - Determining Question Set

After initial discussion of frequency and processes, EconSys consultants review the questions that need to be asked by the state as part of the data collection process. At a minimum there are ten questions, and EconSys works with states to determine how they are worded, and what the response values will be. Additional documentation is provided for common terminology and frequently asked questions.

Step 3 - Pilot Study

To ensure the PORT is integrated into their processes effectively, many states run a Pilot program, choosing five to ten providers and using it for a couple of data collection periods as part of a testing period. If there are any glitches or system issues, EconSys consultants and developers address them at this stage. Questions, reporting, and general processes can be fine-tuned at this time.

A Web-Based Interface for Greater Flexibility

The PORT uses a web-based interface to provide greater flexibility for all users – including providers, state agency specialists, and key stakeholders. Because current data can be accessed from any location with an Internet connection, it is possible to ensure better, more continuous reporting over time.

The Results

The EconSys PORT has enabled state agencies in Tennessee, Alabama, and Arkansas to increase the volume of data collected and glean key insights that were not previously available. Alabama was previously collecting data from just six providers via spreadsheet and now has more than 20 providers. Tennessee started with six providers and now has more than 120 providers, with 6,600 individuals reported.

Tennessee’s goal to double employment for CIE was enabled by data collection processes that provided greater insight into the process and enabled increased budgeting and resources for program components that worked most effectively.

Because few states have the background in data collection and processing needed to make internal adjustments, a tool like PORT offers the streamlined, efficient approach they need to gather the most important data from their providers and improve performance across the board. Tennessee’s Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (DIDD) is now highlighting this partnership and the results it has helped to quantify, including a five percent increase in people working in CIE as a proportion of all employment types, a five percent increase in people supported by DIDD who are seeking employment, and an increase in the number of monthly hours worked, rising from 40.1 hours in April 2017 to 45.7 hours in October 2017.

Learn more about the EconSys PORT tool and how it supports state agencies in meeting and improving on the guidelines of their Employment First Initiatives.

  • Automatically e-mail employees when HR cases are created, updated, or need their attention.
  • Allow employees to create and submit cases/questions directly to their HR. Allow HR to prioritize and assign these cases to proper personnel “behind the scenes”.

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