Roadmap to Preparing for the Accreditation Process

Michael De Cicco
April 16, 2019

Your organization has decided to embark on the journey of pursuing accreditation! This commitment can invoke many sentiments—happiness, anticipation, fear, anxiety, and maybe even a splash of frustration. These are all normal feelings. The accreditation process is a major project with a myriad of components. One way to be successful in your accreditation work is to use a project management approach, as it is critical to divide the required work into smaller, manageable steps. Here is a handy, step-by-step guide you can use to conceptualize the tasks that are on the horizon.

Work styles & organizational culture

COA has an organization-wide accreditation model. This means that not only are programs being reviewed, but also the administrative divisions as well. Getting many colleagues involved in the accreditation process will help the organization manage the workload and focus on developing, updating, or sustaining practices that are ultimately in the best interest of the consumers served. 

People have different personalities, which includes varied preferences and approaches to their work responsibilities. There are those who are process-oriented people that do a really great job poking holes in plans and asking questions that may not have been considered. Then there are staff who can reflect and acknowledge the progress that has been made within the organization through that point in time. Knowing some of these characteristics and preferences will be helpful in thinking about who should handle different aspects of the work.

How and why the organization is choosing to pursue accreditation is essential to framing the work that lies ahead. Even if the organization is mandated to achieve accreditation, what the organization hopes to accomplish through this process is valuable for all to hear. Ask yourself: What is the message we will convey to our board, advisory group, staff, consumers, and other relevant stakeholders about what accreditation means for the organization and its future? People want something they can believe in, something that resonates with them, so taking time to reflect and think about the “why” behind this journey is an opportunity to capitalize on building momentum.

Accreditation workload – forming the structure

COA accreditation includes all aspects of the organization’s administration and service delivery operations.  There are three types of standards: administration and management, service delivery administration, and service. Most organizations will have at least ten standard sections to review based on the three categories.  It is essential to have multiple staff managing different standard sections, because no one staff member will have all the answers (and that is a good thing)!

A question we often hear from organizations is “How will we manage the accreditation work?” You must consider whether your organizational structure serves as a sufficient framework to review the standards. This means that those individuals responsible for particular divisions would delegate tasks to staff within their department. For example, the director of human resources would review the human resources management standard section and assign tasks as needed to his/her staff. Similarly, program directors would follow the same process to review service standard areas.

Another option for managing the work includes the creation of functional work groups, which includes assembling teams with individuals from different departments and/or programs to review one or more standard sections. For example, an administrative work group can be formed to review multiple standard areas including risk management, administrative service environment, ethical practice, etc. This type of work group would include an interdisciplinary team of quality improvement, program, information technology, and other staff as needed.

Decision-making authority and flow of communication

Once a decision is made on whether to use the structural work groups, functional work groups, or a hybrid of the two, the organization must consider the decision-making authority. As teams begin to work on reviewing the standards against current practices, you may find that policies, procedures, and protocols may need to be developed or modified. The organization must be clear on who has the authority to implement new procedures and practices. 

Typically, if hierarchical work groups are used, the head of the department or program would be responsible for managing the approval process. Larger organizations may have a chief operations officer or director, and that person may be responsible for final approval. In smaller organizations, decision-making authority may be the sole responsibility of the executive director. In functional work groups, the decision-making authority may be less transparent, so the organization should establish the process for preliminary and final approval of procedures and new protocols. This will be particularly important once staff begin doing the actual work that is part of the Self-Study and Site Visit phases of the accreditation process.

Regardless of the structure chosen to manage the work, the individual responsible for overseeing the accreditation process needs to ensure that work groups and teams routinely provide information and updates to them. Sharing information and progress with the leadership team is a must, especially if the accreditation lead is not a part of said team.

Pro-tip_ Create a core accreditation team that the accreditation lead can work directly with to stay abreast of where all the work groups are with meeting deliverables. (1).png

Responsibilities associated with stages of accreditation process

There are six stages in the accreditation process, each with different responsibilities. Below are some salient tasks for which the organization is responsible.

Application & agreement

The application and agreement phase of the process is an opportunity for the organization to assess the cost of accreditation and explore the service standard sections that may be relevant to the programs provided. Once the organization has decided to pursue COA accreditation, the accreditation agreement is signed and the work begins.


Think of the intake stage as COA’s opportunity to acquire information from the organization on all your programs and locations in which they operate. When highlighting the scope of services at each program, be concise. COA uses this information to determine the appropriate service standard for each program. Do not spend many months in this stage of the process – it will prolong the assignment of service standards. The organization’s Site Visit will not be scheduled until all program documentation has been submitted to COA.

Pro tip: If your organization is a nonprofit, send out save-the-date invitations to key board members for the morning of the Site Visit start date. This way they can block off the time well in advance to minimize scheduling conflicts.


When the organization enters the self-study stage of the accreditation process, all standard sections have been assigned and the due dates for the Preliminary Self-Study and Self-Study have been scheduled, along with the start date for the Site Visit.

During this phase of the accreditation process, the organization should implement the structure for managing the standards review. Work groups should conduct an assessment of its current practices, policies and procedures against the COA standards. A self-assessment helps the organization to know where it needs to prioritize its time and resources.

Pro-tip_ Set internal deadline in advance of the due dates established in the Intake stage. This will give you considerable time to review and update documentation prior to submission to COA.

Site Visit

Once the Self-Study has been submitted, the accreditation work groups should begin compiling documentation to have available during the Site Visit. Reserve a meeting room for the Peer Review team to use while they are onsite for the duration of the Site Visit. All documentation should be clearly labelled by standard section, including the relevant core concept standard. The information the Peer Review team will evaluate can be available in paper or electronic format.

Pro tip: Have all required onsite documentation available during the Sunday afternoon case record review.

Building and sustaining momentum

If you are following the steps as listed, by now the “why” behind accreditation has already been established. An inventory of the strengths of staff has been conducted, and the process for managing the accreditation work is in place. Now the organization needs to formally roll out this significant initiative and keep staff engaged throughout the entire process. 

Set a kick-off date

A kick-off event, such as an all-staff meeting, is a great way to launch the accreditation work. Use this time as an opportunity for the executive director to explain to staff why the organization is pursuing accreditation and why it is valuable. It is an opportunity to inform staff that pursuing accreditation can provide professional development and team building.

Pro-tip_ hosting a kickoff week with quizzes, trivia, freebies, and food can build momentum and excitement about COA accreditation!

Themes and activities

Knowing the “why” behind the organization’s pursuit of accreditation may not be enough for some. For those who are charged with managing the accreditation process, consider ways to make different aspects of the work fun and exciting. Television shows, sports, movies, are all options that may be suitable to connect accreditation work groups. Visual display boards serve as a reminder and can foster healthy competition within the organization.

Pro tip: Don't forget to celebrate small and large milestones! Pizza, tacos, casual dress days, and compensatory time are all welcomed.

Final thoughts

The accreditation process can be overwhelming —there are many aspects that need to be managed. Hopefully, your creative juices are flowing with ways to make this organization-wide initiative manageable and fun. Remember, to get others involved, align the work with the strengths of staff and challenge the organization to always strive to be better.

Been through the accreditation process before? Share your thoughts on some things you wish you had known before you started the accreditation process. Recently completed the accreditation process? Let us know some of your pro tips that helped your organization through!

About Michael De Cicco

Michael De Cicco is the Vice President of External Relations & Communications at the Council on Accreditation, where he oversees the Business Development, Marketing, Communications, Recognitions and Partnerships, Training and Quality Improvement, and Business Intelligence groups. A true global citizen, he speaks seven languages and is an avid traveler in his spare time.