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Pragmatic strategies for modernizing early childhood IT systems

Pragmatic strategies for modernizing early childhood IT systems

State early childhood leaders and IT teams who embrace modernization, along with agile and lean ways of working, will have the greatest success in meeting strategic goals.

State early childhood leaders who embrace modernization, along with agile and lean ways of working, will have the greatest success in meeting strategic goals. This includes goals related to improving engagement with families and partners, transforming service delivery, producing program efficiencies, and coordinating services across the broad spectrum of early childhood programs (such as child care, preschool, early intervention, home visiting, child welfare, and other health and human service programs that support young children).

There has been a lot of effort among state early childhood agencies in the past decade to leverage new technology and collect data. But unless those efforts are pragmatically connected to strategic business and policy goals, not much happens that truly improves outcomes for children, families, and the programs that serve them. This brief provides pragmatic strategies that early childhood leaders and their IT teams can use to help them implement new practices that can transform outcomes by rethinking business processes, implementing new service delivery models, and selecting the right technology to support the work.

Multiple federal funding streams have supported states in this work, including Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge, Preschool Development Grants, Child Care and Development Fund, Statewide Longitudinal Data Systems, and more recently, funding available through the American Rescue Plan Act.

States often have focused their investments on integrating data from different early childhood information systems to better meet strategic goals focused mostly on meeting research, evaluation, and reporting needs. However, in many cases, they have not focused as much attention on how to leverage these investments to meet other strategic goals focused on transforming service delivery and addressing the inequitable access barriers that some families face when seeking public services.

To accomplish this, states need to break down the walls that exist between their policy, program, and IT teams to facilitate the implementation of more effective practices and technologies as they emerge. We need new practices to bring these teams together around a shared vision for improving outcomes for children, families, and the programs that serve them.

For many early childhood agency leaders, managing modernization and data integration efforts is akin to renovating a house while living in it—a gradual, yet consistent, incremental transformation that does not significantly disrupt the occupants day-to-day, but does embed an experimental mindset driven by increased collaboration across silos.

How do you manage the process effectively? In our work with industry professionals and subject matter experts in IT modernization, change management, agile delivery, and emerging technologies, we have identified the following pragmatic strategies to help early childhood agencies move beyond strategic planning to execution.

Identify problems to envision outcomes—know where you want to go

Technology can be effective at fixing problems—increasing productivity, decreasing costs, improving service delivery, reducing barriers to accessing services—but technology alone cannot add meaningful value without measurable outcomes. Advancements in technology mean we can embrace more nuanced evaluation methods. For example, we can move from tracking technical assistance to child care providers to tracking the impact that technical assistance has on compliance and quality. And from tracking the number of children receiving child care subsidies to measuring how access to child care varies across multiple dimensions of access, including proximity to care, quality, affordability, and meeting family needs.

How to identify problems and begin envisioning outcomes:

  • Develop a strong—but realistic—vision for the future. Collaborate with program and policy leaders to clearly articulate the business and policy challenges you want to solve together and the outcomes you want to achieve.
  • Conduct customer research—quantitative and qualitative—including feedback from families, providers, and partner agencies to understand the current state and refine your vision to address the most pressing needs.
  • Continually define modernization for your agency. Focus on achieving outcomes instead of installing software.
  • Define quantifiable goals and actionable metrics aligned to mission outcomes and measure progress regularly.
  • Tie mission outcomes to work done at the program level. Large mission outcomes are the product of smaller successes achieved in iterations and batches. Use impact maps to help actors align their activities to mission outcomes.

Take inventory and assess—know what you have

You may have made significant investments in your workforce, processes, and technologies. Collaborate with your IT team to assess the following areas and preserve what works and modernize what holds you back.

  • Technology: What does a portfolio analysis reveal about the current state of your technology, systems, and architecture? Identify functionality, vulnerabilities, operational costs, and compliance issues.
  • Data: For most early childhood agencies, data and analytics are untapped resources. Do you have the capability to unlock insights from your data? Is the agency able to access and analyze structured and unstructured data? Do you have the right amount of governance in place to prevent duplication and silos? Building the capability to collect, analyze, and synthesize your data can illuminate gaps and opportunities.
  • Customers: A firm understanding of the needs and motivations of families, providers, partner agencies, and the public is frequently an untapped resource for agencies. Do you know what the journey looks like for families seeking services through your agency? Do you know what the journey looks like for the providers serving them? Conduct frequent qualitative research (i.e., talking to families, providers, and partner agency staff) to inform which areas and solutions may have the highest impact.
  • Maturity: What is your team’s level of experience with managing technology initiatives, user-centered design, and agile development? What is your level of experience with continuous integration and product delivery?
  • Culture: Do you have the backing and trust from key agency stakeholders? Do you have the mechanisms to create change? How engaged are stakeholders? How transparent, open, and collaborative are your internal teams?
  • Rationalization: To justify the consolidation of systems or business processes, are your teams able to use analysis methods—such as lean process improvement and design thinking—to engage stakeholders in decision making?
  • Legacy technology: Assess cost, risk, and importance to the mission to determine which technology investments are underserving the mission. Can you identify what needs to be enhanced or replaced?
  • Surprises: Are there interdependencies in your enterprise systems? Shadow technology?

Prioritize and prepare—know where you want to start

By following your agency’s vision and strategic priorities, you can collaborate with your IT team and stakeholders to prioritize which problems to solve first by considering the following:

  • Mission value: Services that impact large user communities; opportunities to eliminate waste, fraud, and abuse; opportunities to improve employee experience and service delivery.
  • Cost: Some technology investments can lead to increased efficiency and cost reductions that can be reinvested in other mission priorities.
  • Risk: Prioritize addressing vulnerable systems that house sensitive data, or technology with known performance problems that require more immediate attention.

Manage lean and start small—make progress early and often

A pragmatic approach borrows from lean startup principles and the agile mindset. Start small to show success early through quick wins and measurable outcomes.

  • Build, measure, and learn: Collaborate with your IT team to develop a minimum viable product through iteration, practice continuous deployment, test business hypotheses, and learn from data—including feedback from users through both testing and observation.
  • Quick wins: Consider developing scalable prototypes developed in months or weeks that demonstrate early success and generate valuable insights through user testing and feedback
  • Champion the change: Agency leadership and their IT teams must give people cover to conduct small experiments. They need to celebrate teams that adopt the behaviors and new capabilities the agency is trying to build—even if the project fails in other ways. Don’t let small failures block broader change.
  • Measure to manage: Remember that many measures will be lagging and might take years to influence. Pay close attention to analytics to inform business decisions, but also measure signs that your agency is adopting new approaches and capabilities.
  • Tools and technology: Avoid the temptation to over-engineer solutions and adopt the latest buzzwords. Focus on developing mission capabilities and establish an approach that allows you to swap out technology as it evolves and as your agency’s business and policy needs change.

Shift culture by doing—make change visible

Entrenched cultures can kill the best intentions. Successful culture change happens when workforces are initiated with incremental initiatives that demonstrate near-term value. Empower people to experience—and see—change early; continually reassess and communicate often.

  • Put people first: Assess the needs of your workforce, the families you serve as well as providers and partner agencies. Know what levels of support, training, and direction staff need; identify early adopters and champions; motivate with awards, work opportunities, or titles; and be sensitive to change fatigue.
  • Identify resistance: Resistance often sprouts from a lack of understanding, awareness, and fear. Identify the drivers of the opposition to change and actively address them.

  • Spread the message: Clear and consistent messaging is key to cultural buy-in. Different levels of leadership need to be on the same page with the same message. Invest in internal marketing and communication campaigns to let people know what is changing and what is in it for them. Internal communication creates an ongoing conversation (e.g., the same positive ideas are repeated).

  • Integrate teams: Establish small integrated, multi-disciplinary teams organized around specific applications. Together, a business analyst, a user experience expert, a scrum master, and developers can work with a “product owner” to solve small problems (slices of a larger problem); encourage collaboration (i.e., product owners should continually invite input from key stakeholders and users). Pair teams with policy, research, and evaluation experts to provide guidance along the way.

  • Document the evolution of change: Produce video diaries and testimonials that resonate—visual, real-life examples of how the change has improved how people work, the way they feel about their job, and the way the agency delivers services to families and providers.

  • Support cultural rituals: Model and reward rituals that reflect the culture your agency is trying to reflect. For example, retrospectives after the end of the launch of a new system or system enhancement will provide judgment-free opportunities to reflect on progress and acknowledge successes and failures.

  • The workforce of the future: Define your workforce goals and assess the needs and current gaps to build a roadmap to the future. Use change management techniques, training, and brown bag sessions to address skills gaps or redeploy workers.

Draw on experience—move as one team

Shifting from rigid silos to an open, transparent culture takes time. It is a continuous effort of improvement that is easily stalled or even derailed. Starting your modernization journey with experienced professionals who understand your agency operations, security requirements, budget, and procurement process is critical to building a foundation that will support ongoing success.

  • Domain expertise: Tap into the expertise of subject matter experts and IT professionals with modernization experience to ensure that teams understand and can work within your agency’s unique constraints and limitations.
  • Flexibility and adaptability: Work with experts who can easily adapt to your unique environment and provide the support to match it—from simply advising to embedding within your teams as needed.
  • Integrated approach: From business processes to change management to automation, agile development, user experience, security, analytics, and more, consultants need to combine capabilities to deliver IT products and applications that bolster the mission.

  • High degree of trust: Create trusting environments where consultants and staff work side by side, share information, contribute ideas, and accomplish goals as one team.

  • Solving problems: Build teams around solving problems(e.g., streamlining the child care licensing process) rather than individual capabilities (e.g., “I only define the data elements on this project.”) Leverage an integration of different skills, levels of experience, and perspectives so consultants can become trusted advisors.

Embrace modernization

Modernization is as much a commitment to your agency’s future as it is a response to the present. Modernizing technology requires a widespread culture shift which is a serious challenge for large, siloed, bureaucratic agencies that may deliver services in partnership with other agencies and partner organizations. Rushing into massive change efforts comes with risks, costs, and setbacks. A pragmatic approach allows agencies to begin to add value right away and address your state’s early childhood priorities with quick wins and small, scalable proofs of concept.

Modernizing at a smaller scale allows early childhood agencies to significantly minimize risk and visibly and continuously change their technology, data, and workforce while maintaining what works. With new funding through the American Rescue Plan Act, state early childhood leaders have the opportunity to modernize technology to support the evolving priorities that their agencies have to improve services for children and their families.

Meet the authors
  1. Kyle Tuberson, Chief Technology Officer

    Kyle brings more than 20 years of experience in technology and data science to IT modernization services that help government and businesses improve efficiency and reimagine the way they meet customer needs. View bio

  2. Kenley Branscome, Consultant, Early Education Services

    Kenley is an early childhood policy expert with more than 25 years of experience in using data and research to improve programs for young children and their families. View bio

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