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Successful Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) Agency and IT Vendor Engagements

Reflections from a Former CCDF State Administrator

State early childhood education and care (ECEC) agencies are facing increasing demand to modernize their IT and data infrastructure to inform policy, practice, and public funding decisions. Although federal pandemic funding provided resources to quickly implement modernization projects, the ARPA funding that sparked short-term wins and innovation is ending.  The scalability and lessons learned of these quick wins are still being considered in many cases.  

With the recent promulgation of the 2024 CCDF Final Rule, States will be wrestling with high-stakes policy and investment decisions, as well as considering changes to long standing business practices and program policies.  

Most, if not all, these policy decisions and changes will mean more investment into data system work. States will need to expand, modernize, and/or potentially overhaul their ECEC systems with new functionality and features to meet the goals of the 2024 CCDF Final Rule.

For some, the thought of procuring a new vendor, approaching a current vendor or seeking in-house resources to assist with a data system project evokes a visceral reaction.  

  • Will they understand what we need?
  • Will they be committed to our short- and long-term success?
  • Do they understand how challenging it is to work within government?
  • Can they really deliver what they say they can?
  • Are we going to get anything we can use once it is done?
  • Let’s be real: are they just in it for the money?
  • How can we work together in a way that promotes a successful project?

It begs the question: What can ECEC agencies do to bolster the success of IT vendor engagements?

This question in no way assumes that it is solely the State who is responsible for adopting and implementing success strategies.  IT Vendors must consider the same question from the lens of their responsibilities and strategies. For this discussion, however, the focus is on State perspectives and strategies. 

Woman Talking with Young Children

Perspectives From ECEC Policymakers

Recently, several of my TCC colleagues and I had a discussion with a group of ECEC government policymakers about the challenges and opportunities of engagements with IT vendors.

Here is a summary of what they had to say. 

Perspectives from Other Policymakers

In a recent GovTech article, State and Local government officials sounded off about What Makes a Vendor a Good Partner.  Several themes emerged in these interviews:

  • Understanding Outcomes and Operating Environment: Effective vendors prioritize understanding the desired outcomes of their partners and adapt to the unique operational structures of their clients.
  • Alignment with Strategic Objectives: The best vendors align their solutions with the strategic plans of their partners, demonstrating a clear understanding of the organization’s goals and objectives rather than offering generic solutions.
  • Engagement and Collaboration: Good vendor partnerships involve active engagement and collaboration, including the willingness and ability to understand the business, challenges, and priorities of their clients.
  • Long-term Strategic Partnerships: Vendors who seek to be strategic partners rather than just transactional ones stand out. They demonstrate a commitment to our success and are willing to invest in long-term relationships.
  • Value Beyond Price: While price is a consideration, other factors such as quality, reliability, security, consistency, customer support, flexibility, and communication are equally important in vendor selection. Good partners understand the value they bring beyond just their pricing structure.

Experience from Both “Sides” of the Table

Over my 25-year career in the ECEC industry, I have had experience leading a myriad of ECEC data system projects both as a policymaker and as an executive at an IT firm.

My perspective has broadened and deepened in terms of what I believe to be the most important elements of a successful ECEC data system project.

Success starts with understanding that each organization comes to the table already grounded in their own mission, governance, people, policies, practices, processes and project portfolios. 

Obviously, these areas can present challenges to working together. Just agreeing to a shared documentation platform to use for the project can feel like a Herculean task.   But with the right vendor, opportunities exist.  For instance, the right vendor can bring expertise and lessons learned to the table that facilitate proactive risk mitigation and highlight areas for organizational change management consideration.   

With this foundational concept in mind, let’s return to the question: What can ECEC agencies do to bolster the success of IT vendor engagements?

Not surprisingly, it starts with planning.  Set expectations for what you want from a vendor before the engagement begins. I’ve found the three considerations below to be the most fundamental and vital to a successful State and IT vendor engagement.  

Mission Alignment:

A vendor whose corporate mission aligns with your agency’s mission enters your project with a thorough understanding of your goals, requirements, context, and challenges. Their products and services will be more aligned with your needs.  Vendors with a strong focus on ECEC bring valuable insights that can streamline project processes and lead to better outcomes.

Improved Project Efficiencies:
  • Product relevance
  • Shared ECEC language
  • Faster and more focused project initiation
  • Effective stakeholder engagement
  • Minimized re-work
Enhanced Outcomes:
  • Value beyond technical expertise
  • Anticipation of risks and more effective risk management approach
  • Proactive organizational change management
  • Trusted project implementation/rollout strategies and tactics

Just as important as the vendor’s stated mission is their demonstrated level of commitment to it.  To understand a vendor’s mission and its authenticity, I find it helpful to go beyond a visit to their company website.  Dig deeper and ask questions that test vendors’ level of commitment to their stated mission.  For instance:

  • How far do you have to go down the corporate org chart to find the ECEC line of business?
  • How many other lines of business does the vendor operate?
  • Does their hiring process focus on recruiting professionals who have an ECEC background
Subject Matter Expertise:

 The ECEC industry has its own set of opportunities and challenges.  IT Vendors with subject matter expertise understand the unique challenges and opportunities within the early childhood education landscape and can offer tailored solutions that are effective, efficient and support the agency’s overarching mission and objectives.

As a former State ECEC Agency Director, I know how relieved I felt when I had a vendor at the table who understood what I was talking about, was willing to help me solve the crisis of the week and could even think ahead with me.  Leveraging the collective expertise of both organizations in this manner drove innovation and helped us collaboratively overcome any challenges we encountered throughout project lifecycles.

  • Does the company have ECEC experts in significant leadership and executive roles?
  • How does the vendor support and participate in ECEC industry organizations?
  • Does the vendor demonstrate a “finger on the pulse” of key and current issues in the ECEC industry?
Transparent Communication:

ECEC Data Systems projects are often high stakes and high visibility. To prevent surprises and misunderstandings that may impact the success of the project, it is important to establish expectations for clear, timely and honest communication.

  • Facilitate a culture of open, honest dialogue, active engagement, and shared problem-solving approaches. The team should feel safe to deliver bad news.
  • Establish open channels of communication from the outset. Make sure to have clear protocols and expectations for matters that need escalation.
  • Insist on an environment of mutual respect. Vendors should value and respect the lived and professional experience of the entire ECEC agency team.
  • If you are not getting the information and communication that you expect, don’t be afraid to follow the established escalation protocols.

Formula for Success

The ECEC industry is a unique and shifting landscape to navigate.  Insisting on a vendor with mission alignment, subject matter expertise and transparent communication will provide the foundational pieces you need for a successful ECEC data system project.