Frontline Initiative Change

When the State Mandates Change:
One Agency Uses Channge to Become Stronger


Maureen O’Nell is Residential Director for the CILA program at Orchard Village in Skokie, Illinois

Some people don’t seem too ruffled by the word “change.” They even seem to enjoy the word and all that it means. Others head quickly for ear plugs when they hear it. Although there are people who get a kick out of change, I’ve yet to meet a person who truly appreciates it when significant change is dictated to them.

We at Orchard Village, an agency in Illinois that provides both residential and vocational supports to people with developmental disabilities, recently went through one of those grueling experiences. The state of Illinois mandated that all agencies receiving state funds must become accredited by a nationally recognized accreditation institution within a year to continue being licensed. We had nothing against accreditation, but we didn’t like the idea of being told we had to become accredited within a certain timeframe. I’m no expert on how groups work, but I doubt that we are the only group that started the process begrudgingly. “How dare they! How can they? What will they do if we don’t comply?” After the initial temper tantrum was finished – and yes, there were others – we got down to business.

Even deciding which accreditation group to use seemed like an insurmountable task. There were several groups available to us. We could go with a group that would focus on our paperwork, and we knew that our paperwork was in good order. We could go with a group that would focus on the individual outcomes of the people we provide services to, even though we knew that we had a great deal of work to do in this area. Ultimately, we selected a group that we felt best matched our philosophy of person-centered supports. We decided to put the energy into the process that would most likely benefit the people to whom we provide supports. The training coordinator was given the role of leadership, core groups were assigned, and we were off. At times the course seemed clear, at other times, unforeseen hurdles seemed to appear in our path. I am proud to say that after less than a year of blood, sweat, and tears, we received a two-year accreditation. After the review, a group of direct support workers from the agency sat down to examine why we were successful and what we could have done better. Our greatest strength, and primary liability, was communication. On the positive side, people felt that their supervisors had taken the time to discuss the changes that were coming. A formal training schedule had been developed so that everyone knew what topics would be discussed for several months. Staff talked to each other, to the people receiving services, and to their supervisors in order to work through the changes in expectations. We knew that we couldn’t make it without teamwork.

On the negative side, staff initially thought the changes would be temporary, like many other things management had passed down. The sense was, “Here we go again.” Everyone felt the pressure to make the change quickly. One way we could have improved our communication was to get information out as soon as it was received. At times people felt that if they knew of a change earlier, they could have started working on it right away. 

Gradually everyone started to understand and support the process. We were starting to practice person-centered planning, not just talking about it. A greater sense of conviction grew – this wasn’t just going to be a passing phase. We weren’t just working for accreditation, we were committing to provide better support to the people who receive our services.

It was scary at first. We worried, “What will be the consequences if we don’t make it?” However, when a person who had always wanted to work with cars started volunteering at a car wash, and another person who was told that he could never use a motorized wheelchair was able to, we stopped being so concerned about making it to the accreditation finish line. What we were working toward took on new meaning. Outside of meeting the accreditation goals, we actually liked the process. We were living up to our mission and our vision in ways we hadn’t before.

Nobody was thrilled to have the state order us to change. Yet, not one of us would alter what we have been through, or what we have accomplished. Our success came from a strong commitment to what we do. We examined what had to be done in order to comply with the mandate and put it in the context of where we wanted to go. Ultimately we used the change as a tool to become stronger. The best advice we can give about how to deal with change is to look at how the change will affect the people receiving services. Use that understanding to guide what you do.