This summary is aimed at state leaders and their partners as well as TA providers. State teams can use the questions as a spring board for discussion to facilitate aligned, intentional, and productive engagement with TA entities and opportunities, whether paid for by an outside entity or acquired through a contracting process.
TEN TIPS FOR EARLY CHILDHOOD LEADERS ENGAGING IN TECHNICAL ASSISTANCE OPPORTUNITIES
By Debi Mathias, Director, QRIS National Learning Network. Support from Ruth Trombka, Editor and Writer, and Michelle Stover-Wright, Research and Evaluation Manager.
Federal technical assistance (TA) centers, research institutions, national organizations, and philanthropic funders offer a range of TA opportunities. Technical assistance has the potential to facilitate and support the movement of states, regions, programs, grantees, and even individuals toward their vision and goals, but information on where, when, and how to apply for these wide-ranging opportunities with experts is not always clear. Further, many more questions arise for states as they begin to negotiate the TA terrain, e.g., how should the learning from the TA be incorporated into practice within the state; how should TA align with already established visions and priorities; and how do states ensure staff doesn’t end up overworked, over-deployed, or as merely superficial participants in these opportunities? This summary aims to address these and other issues by offering “10 Tips” – gleaned from interviews with state leaders and TA providers in 2017.
This summary is aimed at state leaders and their partners as well as TA providers. State teams can use the questions as a spring board for discussion to facilitate aligned, intentional, and productive engagement with TA entities and opportunities, whether paid for by an outside entity or acquired through a contracting process. Further, state leaders and their partners can establish their own protocols for engagement and ensure opportunities inform progress across departments and agencies to better leverage learning, sustain progress, and build capacity.
Ten questions about engaging in TA focused on early childhood systems development:
1. What are our state’s early childhood system, structures, needs, and already existing plans?
This work is not done in isolation and functions best when it builds on specific needs based on planning that is aligned with other efforts in the state. As state leaders evaluate their systems, develop departmental workplans, and establish goals, they might recognize areas of excellence and gaps. This can lead to a proactive establishment of technical assistance needs. The more state leaders across departments and agencies focused on family, health and early learning connect and align with (or, at a minimum, have knowledge about) each other’s goals, objectives, and resulting TA, the more cohesive the state approach can become. State leaders might ask themselves: Have we shared our data, current successes, outcomes disparities and plans to address those disparities? What are the various visions, Theories of Change, guiding principles, or other baseline documents that might help orient the TA provider to our current context? Does the TA provider understand our systems-building efforts and how the TA engagement drives the larger system work forward?
2. Does the TA opportunity meet our current priorities and needs?
If not, can it be modified or is this the right TA opportunity at this time? What are the priorities, goals, challenges, and opportunities the TA might address or support us in moving forward? Will it help us address needs? Where are we stuck? Will an outside perspective with new thinking help move our efforts ahead? Should we proactively seek TA to address a specific need? If so, how do we figure out who or what organizations are best positioned to assist us and how do we begin a contracting process? How is racial equity or decreasing racial disparities supported by this process and planning, and does the prospective TA organization/individual have expertise to support our efforts in this area?
3. What is our state and team capacity to fully engage and use technical assistance?
If engagement with a TA provider is to be effective, it will take time, attention, and resources from a variety of individuals and groups within the state. Is our team motivated and ready for change? What is our state’s capacity to receive and be a full and engaged partner in the process of developing a plan and ongoing work with a TA provider? Are there sufficient organizational supports for the team?
4. What are the opportunities for expanded leadership and ownership of the work?
Who will lead, manage the mechanics (note taking, meeting announcements etc.), and be assigned to the team? Consider each person and team’s authority, influence, and racial diversity. Do you need to add representation from different systems, sectors, or organizations? How can we use TA as an opportunity to develop or expand leadership and enhance ongoing team performance? What voices or perspectives have not been at the table but need to be so that an effective and equitable early childhood system can be built? How can leaders be engaged and supported? Are there junior leaders who might benefit from the opportunity and support their efforts?
5. Is the TA plan action oriented?
Does your team include decision-makers assuring identified strategies will be implemented and supported? Is there support from those in authority and routine “check ins” with the decision-makers to guide the scope and direction of the team efforts? Where is the authority for decision- making and implementation of a final plan to authentically move efforts ahead and act? Sometimes TA ends with the team having an action plan in place on which they want to move forward; how is the team supported when the TA provider exits, or the learning engagement is completed? Is a check-in later a possibility?
6. Does the TA provider have necessary information related to the state context?
Does the TA provider know the players, priorities, state plans, current political, legislative and fiscal realities, and social and cultural context? Has our team been proactive in sharing this background and providing ongoing feedback as the TA opportunity progresses? What documents, links, and process could be used to orient the TA provider?
7. How will our team work day to day? How are we thinking about internal communication, and sharing the work with other vested partners and community engagement entities from the beginning?
What are the internal communication strategies and protocols during the engagement, for example, between sessions or for check-in with the TA team? What are our organizational supports for the day-to-day operations and planning? How much autonomy does the team have during the engagement and should check-in be scheduled with other leadership? Is there a community engagement or stakeholder piece to the work and, if so, how do we plan for those efforts? How will community and beneficiary voice be brought into this planning and work to increase equitable outcomes?
8. Are innovations, new ideas, frames, challenges to assumptions and outside-of-the-box thinking welcome?
TA can be very effective as a strategy to bring in innovative thinking and new perspectives and ideas, as well as the support to implement those ideas. Is there interest in challenging the status quo, and to dig into aspects of systems development and innovation not previously considered? How do we challenge ourselves throughout the process?
9. What do we know about the TA itself? Are we clear regarding fundamental questions related to the TA system, goals, and providers?
There are differences among TA centers, organizations, and individual TA providers. Some wait for state leaders to take the lead in identifying needs and then are responsive; some look at a state and help them make an assessment and are proactive. Does the TA address not only the content but the process of engagement? What does our state need; are we drafting policy or focusing on advocacy; are we seeking innovative approaches, or do we want information about researched-based, tried- and-true solutions? Are we being candid with our TA provider to assure our goals align and know how to best work together? Are there are opportunities to share feedback and make mid-course corrections? Consider the caliber of opportunities; be choosy and try to determine if what you get out of it will be equal to what you will need to put in. Don’t be afraid to say, ‘No, that’s not what we need; what we really want is X or “this opportunity is not right for us at this time.” Make sure to participate in the honest evaluation of the TA experience as well as the team’s engagement and what was accomplished. If the TA becomes non-beneficial, is there an exit strategy? These continuous quality improvement efforts benefit everyone involved.
10. How can TA efforts be best aligned? How is TA occurring in the department or early childhood state systems (at the state and local levels) tacked and coordinated?
Is there a list of TA opportunities being provided in the state, including some basic information about focus, length of TA, list of state team members, and contact information for TA providers to help everyone collaborate and coordinate efforts? States might consider doing this via a state or department-level systems team (preferably already existing) that assesses TA needs and opportunities across the state’s early childhood systems (health, early learning, family support/engagement). How can we make sure this work is not done in isolation, and that it strategically aligns with federal, research, national organization, and philanthropic TA, making sure the efforts in each TA engagement inform the others?
If you want to share ideas or have suggestions to add to this tip sheet, email the BUILD Team at firstname.lastname@example.org
 TA, in this instance, refers to supports to build capacity and infrastructure to improve early learning systems as they aim to serve diverse children and families in local settings.
 ”State” is used throughout this document to reference regions, programs, grantees, and individuals.
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