Technology has made many processes in our life simpler and easier — from applying for a credit card to having dinner delivered — but this level of innovation has largely not been extended to people accessing government supports and services. Information about availability, eligibility, and applying for services is often time-consuming to find, and antiquated systems are difficult to navigate, particularly for those with barriers to access. Federal and state governments, however, are working to change that by starting to treat families like customers and intentionally building online systems that work for them.
On May 18th, the Alliance for Early Success brought together panelists from New America’s New Practice Lab and South Carolina First Steps (an Alliance for Early Success grantee) for a conversation on centering families in efforts to ensure more equitable access to publicly-funded early childhood services.
You can access the recording and slides with the buttons above, or read on for a summary and list of resources shared.
A National Issue: Online Systems Do Not Center Families’ Experiences
Sarah Gilliland, Senior Policy Analyst, and Jessica Weeden, Senior Design Lead, with the New Practice Lab at New America began by emphasizing the New Practice Lab’s mission to center lived experience in policy delivery and design. They then shared the Lab’s recent research on complexity in accessing information about early education programs online. Recognizing a lack of cohesion, chronic underinvestment, and fragmentation within early care and education systems, the New Practice Lab collaborated with parents and community stakeholders in Minnesota to identify ways to reduce complexity. Families cited multiple challenges to accessing programs — specifically in understanding their eligibility, navigating applications, and scarcity of programs and slots. To better understand the scope of this issue nationwide, the New Practice Lab scanned publicly-available information on early care and education offerings within four core program areas that receive the most public funding in the 50 states and DC. What they found confirmed that the application burdens families in Minnesota described were typical for families everywhere:
- Most states offer several early education programs, with varying administrative structures and eligibility requirements.
- Information about eligibility and application processes are generally not co-located on websites.
- Families are navigating fragmented systems without useful online support.
The New Practice Lab was able to share bright spots from Colorado, New Mexico, Ohio, and South Carolina, where states have done a good job streamlining information about programs and improving eligibility screeners and online applications.
Gilliland and Weeden wrapped up by highlighting recent federal government efforts to simplify access to early childhood programs and services, including:
- Two Executive Orders from the Biden administration on transforming the customer experience and service delivery, and on improving caregiving.
- A federal project on improving alignment, coordination, and equity across early childhood systems
- A guide for state agencies looking to create simpler applications for families seeking child care subsidy assistance
State Action: South Carolina’s Family-Friendly Online Portal
Georgia Mjartan, Executive Director, and Rachal Hatton-Moore, LMSW, Two-Generation Coordinator, with South Carolina First Steps shared how South Carolina conceived of and, with support from a Preschool Development Grant, built a comprehensive, family-friendly online portal. The goal was to improve families’ access to a wide range of early childhood programs and services in the state across health and safety, child care and early education, special needs and early intervention, food and nutrition, and parenting and family supports.
SC First Steps is a state agency and facilitates the state’s Early Childhood Advisory Council, giving them a birds-eye view of the complexity of early childhood programs and funding in the state. Listening sessions with more than 2500 parents and caregivers in all 46 counties confirmed that this complexity was impacting families’ ability to access information about and apply for early childhood programs and services.
Rather than assuming that the solution to a fragmented system was a different governance structure (such as moving all early childhood programs in one state agency), the SC Early Childhood Advisory Council first centered their vision on what children and families in the state said they needed, then went from there. What this initially yielded was a pilot online eligibility scanner for South Carolina’s state-funded pre-K program, Palmetto Pre-K. The success of that pilot paved the way for the First Five SC portal.
Hatton-Moore, an instrumental leader in the design of the portal, walked attendees through a demonstration of the tool, highlighting intentional strategies to increase accessibility and enrollment in South Carolina’s early childhood programs. She shared how parents and caregivers were involved all along the way in the development of the portal.
Families can learn more, determine their eligibility for, and apply to multiple programs directly through the First Five SC portal, which features plain and easily understood language, co-location of information, accessibility in multiple languages, and resources for additional assistance for those who may need it. The First Five SC model could be a roadmap for other states—especially those without a consolidated governance structure for early childhood programs.
Questions and Answers
During Q&A, panelists shared lessons learned about incorporating the lived experience of families they were seeking to serve and using an equity lens in the design and implementation of their work. Insights included:
- The importance of intentionality and care when reaching out to families and coming from a trauma-informed approach — recognizing places of privilege and racism, reiterating a family’s agency and control, and closing feedback loops by letting families know what we’re doing with any information they provide.
- A Family Voice Council helped South Carolina ensure that they heard from a wide range of parents and caregivers and were able to incorporate their feedback about the tool and its features as it was being built.
- Parents and caregivers need to be compensated for their expertise when they provide input, which can require a flexible funding source. South Carolina spent one-time Preschool Development Grant funds for this (which is also how they funded the portal’s development).
- Bringing an equity lens to this work means realizing families will take multiple paths to the information, maximizing all those paths to services, and making it easy to find help if people need a little bit more navigation assistance on your portal.
- South Carolina’s driving vision for the portal was a spraypainted neon sign over every invisible public door, saying “here it is!”
- They recognized the importance of storytelling in ensuring that families saw themselves and their needs reflected in the portal, so there is a section of the portal with family stories, complete with photos.
South Carolina also shared their thinking about governance structures.
- When state decision-makers realize the complexity of early childhood systems, they often go straight to governance – moving all the early childhood services under one department, for example.
- Reviewing other states’ experiences, SC saw that whether a state operates in a coordinated system or an integrated consolidated system, the hard, technical leg work of building out seamless eligibility and enrollment portals is necessary to make these systems work for families, so they started there.
- New America’s research agrees that while there tends to be a correlation between consolidated governance structures and co-location of resources online, that governance structure is not required to build an effective online portal that is coordinated and family-friendly.
South Carolina shared how they messaged the portal, both with legislative decision-makers and with state agencies who were signing on.
- The conversation was about activating parent choice and putting parents in the driver’s seat about decisions for their children. If parents only know about one preschool program, and the state actually has several options, then they aren’t really being given a choice.
- They talked about ensuring that “all children” get access to services, regardless of whether their parents lived in a rural community or couldn’t make a phone call in the middle of their workday on an assembly line.
- They worked with state agencies where they were, bringing them onto the portal in a staged or slow way if needed to manage their concerns about sudden increases in demand for services, or not pushing them to share data that they weren’t ready to share.For example, they gave agencies the choice of being included only for eligibility screening or also being part of the application process.
- State agencies also had concerns about capacity limits, under enrollment, and/or operating in competition with one another. The SC Early Childhood Advisory Council made it easy for the portal to share information about all the programs to encourage trust and collaboration, and ensure families were able to determine the program(s) that best fit their needs.
- They have a lot of data protections in place, including ensuring that families learn which information will be shared with state partners and which will not, and data agreements that the state agencies must sign to get access to each other’s data. They spent a long time getting that right – meeting state laws and ensuring HIPAA and FERPA compliance.
- It’s important to get buy-in from the very top, from the program staff, and from the technical staff, because they all have to be involved and communicating well for the venture to be successful.
Opportunities for Collaboration
The New Practice Lab believes that access to public services can be improved through collaborative discovery sprints, and are seeking partners to actively partner with towards that goal. They are interested in collaborating on early care and education data projects, particularly in improving eligibility screening, smoothing application and enrollment processes, and ensuring robust, usable longitudinal data. The Lab often works with early childhood advocates to make connections and partnerships with state agencies.
Sarah Gilliland, Senior Policy Analyst
New Practice Lab at New America
Jessica Weeden, Senior Design Lead
New Practice Lab at New America
SC First Steps and the SC ECAC are available to connect with other states interested in learning more about the First Five online portal.
Georgia Mjartan, Executive Director
SC First Steps; SC Early Childhood Advisory Council
SC First Steps; SC Early Childhood Advisory Council
About the New Practice Lab
New America’s New Practice Lab is a Winner in Fast Company’s 2023 World Changing Ideas Awards, Fast Company
Meet the New Practice Lab: Where Policy and Delivery Converge, New America
Human-Centered Design as an Equity Strategy in Early Childhood Policy & Development, Alliance for Early Success with New Practice Lab
BRIEF: Lost in the Labyrinth: Helping Parents Navigate Early Care and Education Programs; States Vary Widely with No Shortage of Opportunities for Improvement, New Practice Lab
Family-Friendly Applications are Key to Equitable Access in Child Care, CLASP
Executive Order on Transforming Federal Customer Experience and Service Delivery to Rebuild Trust in Government, White House
The Early Childhood Key Life Experience Priority, Performance.gov: An Official Website of the U. S. General Services Administration
ACF Launches New Tool for States To Make Child Care Assistance Easier for Families to Access, Administration for Children and Families, U. S. Department of Health & Human Services
Creating a Family Friendly Child Care Assistance Application, Administration for Children and Families, U. S. Department of Health & Human Services
Executive Order on Increasing Access to High Quality Care and Supporting Caregivers, White House
Early Childhood Systems Collective Impact Project: Federal Recommendations to Improve Alignment, Coordination, and Equity across Early Childhood Programs, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, U. S. Department of Health & Human Services
About SC First Steps
Learn more about SC First Steps.
Visit the First Five SC portal. Learn more about it here and here.
Read an Alliance state policy progress story about the First Five portal.
Learn more about the SC Early Childhood Advisory Council.
Learn more about Palmetto Pre-K.