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State Program Deputy Director: ‘It’s All Interconnected. We’re Dreaming Big.’

An image of Joelle Ball, deputy director of program implementation and regional support for the California Workforce Development Board, next to a quote that reads: "We have made huge progress for granting and grant management with the Salesforce platform and are getting great response from those that use this both internally and externally. Our grantees and our applicants love it. It's so much easier than it used to be."
As part of Industry Insider — California’s ongoing efforts to educate readers on state agencies, their IT plans and initiatives, here’s the latest in our periodic series of interviews with departmental IT leaders.

Joelle Ball is deputy director of program implementation and regional support for the California Workforce Development Board (CWDB), a role she has had for more than five years. She is a veteran of state service, having joined in the early 1990s, and was at the Employment Development Department before joining the Board.

She has a bachelor’s degree in early childhood development from California State University, Sacramento. Starting in 2021, she and her team at CWDB led a major effort to implement Salesforce to manage the board’s grants, working collaboratively with the Employment Training Panel, which held the Salesforce contract, to develop specific modules. Since then, the project has attracted national and international interest.

Industry Insider California: As deputy director of program implementation and regional support for your organization, how do you describe your role? How have your role and responsibilities changed in recent years in terms of their intersection with IT and innovation?

Ball: They have (changed) pretty drastically. As an organization, I have seen us be as few people as 12 or 13. We’ve grown substantially in the last, I would say, 10 years. With that, my role has changed. We are not in federal statute to do grant granting. We’re a policy recommendation board for the governor’s office. We didn’t do, really, any grants until about 2013 and we didn’t have a lot of divisions until then, when it became necessary. My role is to oversee the grant management. We went from 2013 investment, about $3 million, and we have probably $1 billion in the field right now. With that, I’ve really had to set up the structure of my branch so that I have the staffing capacity to manage that. More recently, because of the growth, we have separated out a lot of the responsibilities that my branch started with. We were doing all of the data collection and putting reports together on data when we were very small. But now, that’s a whole branch. We were not only doing grant management, but we were also putting out all the solicitations, managing the solicitation process, making the recommendations for awards, and going through that whole process, for which now we have a whole entire unit. My team was doing all of the contracting process. (The Employment Development Department) EDD does the actual execution of contracts, but we were preparing the packages. And because of the growth, now, that’s a whole other unit. And so my role has changed from overseeing or doing all of those things to growing my branch to be able to support the capacity of grants that we have out there in California. But also assisting other branches in standing up and the transfer of those roles to other branches.

Editor’s note: The California Workforce Development Board is approved for 107 positions in the 2023-24 Fiscal Year state budget that began July 1. Its budget is $147.3 million, with rounding.

IICA: As your role has changed, do you feel like the degree to which you handle, work with or oversee IT has grown or diminished?

Ball: It has grown because I’m the point person for the Salesforce development platform. My first exposure to similar technology was over 10 years ago, I would say, when I was reading and scoring applications that were submitted to the Strategic Growth Council, and they were looking for readers. Back in the day, grantees used to have to submit three paper copies of their application, and we would receive those paper copies, and our readers would each get a paper copy and we’d sit in a room and read applications and score them. When I saw this online system, it was not ideal. It was hard to use, but it was online. Since then, I’ve been pushing for some kind of solution to this because it would make it so much easier for grantees to submit applications, so much easier for readers to read and score applications, and so much easier for us to manage grants instead of having electronic files on a common drive where everything was held in one system. That leads to this work that we’re doing on the Salesforce platform.

IICA: Does your organization have an IT strategic plan, and may we hyperlink to it? How big a role do you personally play in writing that strategic plan?

Ball: I have not really been involved. I’ve been mostly driving the grant solicitations, grant management, and then growing from there, with the Salesforce platform.

Emily Sunahara, deputy director for operations and policy implementation and chief information officer for the California Workforce Development Board: I think we do have a plan for Salesforce. Our plan is to bring our department into the 21st and even the 22nd centuries. We want to be on the cutting edge of technology. And we have that ability as a smaller state department to do that. And with Joelle bringing Salesforce in-house, we have seen the opportunity there. And now, we are planning how our organization can integrate Salesforce into our operations on a wide array of activities to make us operate as efficiently as possible as a state government entity.

IICA: Can you talk about the implementation of Salesforce that you and your team led to manage grants? Did the number of grants rise significantly? What need existed prior to implementation; and since going live, how has the need been addressed?

Ball: We’ve seen an explosion. We now have 11 grants that have been developed as a solicitation and are going to be managed on the Salesforce platform. The first one we released in December of 2021, so we started the development prior to that. And then we ended up with a desire to put all future solicitations on the platform and not go backwards once we had one. The challenge was that we were constantly developing new solicitations that all had a little bit of a different requirement to them. It’s not a copy-paste in Salesforce, the development for each one is unique. It’s an ongoing thing that we’re doing, solicitations as the funding comes. We develop these solicitations, we enhance these solicitations, we develop the modules for each funding opportunity. We developed those grant management modules, we are now working on enhancements and additional things so that we are taking everything that we are currently managing in paper or electronically from the contract to dashboards for risk assessment, for modification requests for invoicing. All of that is getting developed on the Salesforce platform. The interaction with our grantees is all through the platform. They log in as an external user. We log in as internal users, and we can seamlessly manage and see what’s going on with those grants. All the reporting is being done through Salesforce; Cal-E-Grants is the actual name of the platform. And we’re developing participant data and reporting now on Salesforce. That’s the next big chunk of work. While solicitations, while grant management continues to go, we’re starting now on participant data modules and collecting and analyzing and creating dashboards from that. And then, Emily and I have been working with another sister agency that we actually work with to do the Salesforce work. It’s the Employment Training Panel. We’re developing common architecture with them so that we’re all benefiting from this. They’re the ones that actually hold the contract. And they developed a Salesforce platform for their core program, because they got some state money to do grants. And since we’re the ones that had all the expertise in state grants and doing the solicitations and the grant management, we partnered with them and joined their contract for the Salesforce developers. And then we developed all the grant solicitation and grant management from there that now they are using and actually, now, the Department of Apprenticeship Standards is also using. We’re all under the same agency, which is why this works. As we continue growing those various modules, we’re going to go into operations, HR, admin, like, “How can we use this platform?” Because it’s all connected. How do we use this platform to manage our big budget, our full budget? And then there’s the carve-out for grants. There’s the carve-out for staffing, which is connected to HR, for time sheets. It’s all interconnected. We have this big vision that we want to do this, like the data collection and being able to report up and roll up data in dashboards so that we can report back to the governor’s office on the return on investment of all of these things that we’re doing. We have interactive maps, searchable databases, all these things that we want to do on the platform. We’re dreaming big.

IICA: When you embarked on this journey, did you envision ultimately that you and your team would be doing this much development and that it would be able to scale to other teams?

Ball: When we first started, I didn’t think that I would be the main person driving it. Participant data is now with another branch, it’s not my expertise anymore. But I’m still very much involved because I know how things are developed in Salesforce now from the solicitations and grants management. I know the language, all the technical language that they use. I’m helping with that translation of what the business need is in data-gathering and analysis, and all the different ways that we use it. We have an incredible development team who have that same vision. We’ve got huge buy-in. It’s been great working with that development team because they really spend the time with us to understand what the business need is, and then help us to think about how that might be developed in the platform and all the things that are potentially affected, especially once you start growing it. You have to think even more about how the things that are already developed could be impacted by things that you develop in the future. And vice versa, like we develop things knowing we’re going to want to attach full budget management in the future. We’re going to want to attach contract execution fully in the system in the future. So, what are we developing now that could be impacted later? I never thought I was going to be that person.

Sunahara: This is why, even though Joelle is not the CIO for the organization, Joelle was the perfect person to lead this project, because she has an extensive history with our organization, and she has an extensive knowledge base of what this organization does and also what we’re capable of. For her to learn Salesforce, as she’s learning Salesforce, and as she’s recruiting team members to work with her in Salesforce, she has the knowledge to connect to the system to see, “Oh, this can work on a much larger scale across the organization and just not silo it here in this one specific area.” That’s why she’s the perfect person to lead this.

IICA: Do you expect any additional procurements as a result of the Salesforce project? What big IT initiatives or projects are coming up for you and your team in the next six to 12 months?

Ball: Anything’s possible. Just the way the state works is that there are procurement rules and procurement processes for goods and services. While our sister agency holds that contract, they follow the same rules that we do. While we have started on the Salesforce contract, there is a process for maintaining it, if that’s what we choose to do, and if we want to add functions that are compatible with Salesforce, then that’s a whole other procurement of goods and services to attach to it.

IICA: How do you define “digital transformation?” How far along is your organization in that process, and how will you know when it’s finished?

Ball: We have made huge progress for granting and grant management with the Salesforce platform and are getting great response from those that use this both internally and externally. Our grantees and our applicants love it. It’s so much easier than it used to be. But at the same time, all we’ve done is solicitations and grant management. We’re just starting on that data collection. We’re talking about those administrative and operations functions that we can transfer onto the Salesforce platform. It’s both. We’ve taken this huge leap and I feel fortunate that I’ve been trusted to do this for the organization and other departments are using it. And there’s a long way to go. So, percentage-wise, I don’t know. I mean, I’m one quarter of our current organization, and we’re not even done. So, I’d say less than 25 percent.

IICA: As a deputy director, do you work with vendors, and if so, how do you prefer to be contacted by them, including via social media such as LinkedIn? How might vendors best educate themselves before meeting with you?

Ball: I do, in the sense that I’m working with the development team. Do I do the solicitation for vendors or any of the contracting? No, that’s Emily.

Sunahara: Usually it’s in response to a request. We have a need, we put out a public request for vendors to respond to. That’s typically how the state works. But if they wanted to make their presence known or their service known to us, they could definitely reach out.

IICA: In your tenure in this position, which project or achievement are you most proud of? Would it be the work with Salesforce?

Ball: I’m calling this my legacy project. We’ve done a lot as an organization that I have been a part of, like just the sheer expansion of our work, really embedding what the state board does. We have taken the opportunity to use grant funding to flip policymaking upside down. So instead of driving policy from Sacramento with big ideas, we’re funding innovation in the field, learning from that and having that impact policy. So, we’ve turned it upside down. Which is different for state government, right? We talk about, like, we always operate this organization. We have a culture also of operating in that gray space. We know where the line is, and we go all the way up to that line instead of being super conservative and just doing what we need to do as an organization. We’re constantly pushing. And because of that, that’s why we’ve grown so much. As far as the funding that comes to us, the state funding. So, I’m super proud of that. That’s kind of the baseline of work, but then also, you know, connected to this, putting our work, using technology to advance our work so that we’re more streamlined. That’s huge. And just being, again, part of an organization, part of the leadership team that is now getting national and international attention for the work that we’re doing, that’s huge. The feds are coming to us to say, “How did you do this? So we can replicate this in other states.” Not around the technology necessarily. That will come, I think. But around the work that we’re doing.

IICA: Talk a bit about that.

Ball: We have a high-road vision, right? Quality jobs. For all Californians. We do a lot of grant work around removing barriers for communities and populations that have been historically not recognized in the need to develop for workforce. And it’s the high-road work, which (is) now being implemented into all of the work that we do. And so that is what’s getting the national attention at the Department of Labor. We’ve done some incredible work for the justice-involved population and within state prisons. And so, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has reached out and they actually granted us to provide technical assistance to them on how to re-create our programs at the federal level in the federal prisons. And just the other day, one of our executives mentioned that we’re getting calls from other countries now. I don’t have a lot of detail around that. I just know that, you know, Washington calls.

IICA: What has surprised you most this year in government technology?

Ball: I’ve learned a lot. I’m really not surprised by anything, but I think that just about anything can be put onto a platform like that and managed. It’s just a matter of the complexity and how, and then that relates to how long it takes to do it. Government doesn’t move fast. Either the government processes or in development, just because of all the steps it takes to prove out something so that it can be used. We knew it wasn’t going to be perfect when we released that first solicitation, and we’re still making enhancements to the process as we go. Nothing really surprising, but it’s definitely been a learning experience for me.

IICA: What do you read to stay abreast of developments in the gov tech/SLED sector?

Ball: Nothing comes to mind. With technology, usually my reading material is things that relate to the work that we do. Our executive team, we’re usually reading the same books. But not in technology as much, though.

IICA: What are your hobbies and what do you enjoy reading?

Ball: Mostly creative things. I love photography and art and music and so it’s just kind of part of my personality, I love doing creative things. And mentoring the next generation. My husband and I do a lot of mentoring of students that are looking to go into public service. Those are kind of the two things that I’m really passionate about. Besides my work. My job is so fulfilling. It’s hard for me to think about retirement, even though I’m less than 10 years from retirement. My job is a passion, so that makes it not a job, or it doesn’t feel like work. It’s something that I really enjoy doing.

Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited for style and brevity.