Commentary by Bob Schaller, Dept. of Economic Development, St. Mary's County
Ten years ago, then-President of College of Southern Maryland, Elaine Ryan, challenged three separate but related work groups to "connect the dots" of an important outcomes assessment process that was new to the college's thinking. Earlier she had commissioned three groups to critically self-examine distinct functions within the college at the course, program, and institutional levels on how we were (and should be) focused on results (outcomes like jobs) vs. process (inputs like student FTEs). Our accrediting agencies and most important, our funding sources, were increasingly demanding this. The work groups consisted of a good mix of faculty and administration from all three campuses (I chaired the institutional committee from Leonardtown), and all did great work. However, all three efforts were independent of each other, silos if you will. We all knew they needed to be interdependent to really work and sustain. Elaine simply asked us all to "connect the dots" by working together to reduce overlap, leverage common advantage, etc. In the end, make our efforts implementable and really worthwhile. Achieving this as a group was accomplishment in itself, and it really did insure a 360 degree approach.
This practice is certainly not new. It happens everywhere, every day, for every reason. What was different at CSM then is not much different than what faces institutions like local and state governments today that have diminishing resources to deliver an ever increasing level of public services. How do you attempt to meet expectations as the ground is shifting below you? Imagine a crater that opens and widens beneath you as your legs straddle the gap. That gap is today's separation between need and ability to deliver. Elaine's message to us a decade ago informs us today: figure out a different way to stay on your feet by joining with others facing the same fate. We are useless standing alone atop hilltops of a new landscape.
A couple relevant examples from my department illustrate this point. Agriculture and seafood, our first industries, no longer dominate commerce and life here. But both are still extremely important to our collective quality of life and we work hard every day towards this end. The various agricultural groups involved in local government, the Farm Bureau, UMD Extension Service, Soil Conservation Bureau, and a number of others have splintered over time as a result of changes in funding, location, etc. However, when these groups are brought together as has been done recently, and a single ag voice is found on important matters like the County's comprehensive land use plan and zoning ordinance, or the state's legislative agenda, it makes a huge difference. At the service delivery level, a new Ag Services Center north of Leonardtown at the site of the old WKIK radio station is now open as a one-stop shop for the local ag community. Connecting dots to help sustain our first industries.
In public housing assistance, our Housing Authority faces a waitlist that is larger than the actual caseload they are able to service. Human services by definition is not a science. A few years ago the local Department of Social Services working with Three Oaks Homeless Shelter started biweekly meetings that bring together sister agencies like the Housing Authority, but also community partners like non-profits and faith-based groups to discuss difficult cases that individual caseworkers cannot solely solve. It's a kind of casework triage process. The result is that tough situations get attention, and often some resolution. It's an ongoing cooperative communications effort that connects dots of our fragile human services safety net.
Finally, the 5th Annual Scholarship Fair for 2011 took place on Wednesday, Feb 2 at the Forrest Center in Leonardtown. The Business, Education & Community Alliance (BECA) sponsors the Fair as well as the Common Scholarship Application available at smcbeca.org that offers more than 2 dozen local scholarships to applicants, due Tuesday March 15. All small denomination scholarships, but they add up. A total of one hundred scholarships were awarded in 2010. Another way to connect dots that ultimately helps our workforce.