Sustaining Gains

Sustainability planning and implementation is complex, challenging work. Anticipating challenges may help you prepare to move the work forward. Some common challenges during both planning and implementation are noted below. 

  • Disagreement

    Stakeholders do not always agree on what should be sustained. This challenge is more common than not. Make the effort to work across factions. “Working across factions starts with doing lots of work to understand the perspective of the other factions. To work across factions, you need to understand their loyalties, values, and beliefs. You need to imagine the situation from their point of view and do so in an authentic and honest way" (p.118). With a deeper understanding of what groups want, seek common ground on simple issues and build commitment to common principles and goals. Using data help to inform the goals and to track progress toward them. Facilitate a common understanding of whether and how policies and programs support those goals, widely communicating the issues and gaps, introducing options, and building consensus around a specific course of action to build sustainability.
    This part of the process may be time-consuming and could benefit from the involvement of a neutral or trusted facilitator to ensure that all stakeholders feel heard and represented. Using data is essential in bringing stakeholders closer together. Key data components to consider are collecting and analyzing baseline data (to understand issues and gaps); establishing shared metrics; and collecting, tracking, and reporting progress to help inform decisions. Finally, part of sustainability success is demonstrating and communicating what is working but also highlighting key issues or gaps, which may help to unify stakeholders. 

  • System-wide sustainability versus policy sustainability

    Supporting system-wide sustainability planning and implementation is often beneficial in realizing the state’s overall goals for young children, families, and the community. However, it may not always be possible to tackle system-wide sustainability planning. Project, program, initiative, or policy sustainability planning may be more manageable and feasible than tackling the whole system. Stakeholders should come together to determine what will create the greatest benefit for all those involved in terms of the overall goals. It is also important to, evaluate the short- and long-term impacts. 

  • State climate not conducive to sustaining early childhood systems and policies

    State Example

    Florida’s prekindergarten program was created after Florida’s stakeholders engaged in a public awareness campaign to get voters to approve a constitutional amendment to establish free, voluntary, and universal prekindergarten.

    There are times when there may not be an appetite for sustaining current programs, policies, systems, or organizations. These attitudes may contradict data that provide objective information about progress, and cause challenges for those who believe it is in the best interest of the state’s citizens to continue the work.
    In this case, consider the following strategies:

    • First, test the assumptions about the external environment and make sure that they are accurate.

    • Second, in these circumstances, evaluate the best leadership to convene and facilitate the sustainability planning and implementation process. For example, it may not be appropriate for the state to play a convening or leadership role in developing a sustainability plan under these circumstances. This work may need to be led and managed primarily by non-public-sector stakeholders, such as the Early Learning Council, a foundation or consortium of foundations, a professional association, the United Way, a business consortium, or a child advocacy and policy organization. The messenger matters, and strong leaders will focus on the most effective way to reach their goals, which may involve having others lead.

    • Third, determine whether a public engagement and awareness campaign may be needed. If that is the case, external stakeholders may come together to help foster a more conducive climate. 

  • Shifting political and financial landscapes

    Governors can change frequently, as do the heads of the relevant state agencies; there can also be ongoing changes in the make-up of state senators and representatives. Within this fluid environment, use your sustainability plan to stay the course through different governors, agency heads, and governance changes. A sustainability plan with meaningful stakeholder commitment and engagement that is well grounded in data and progress measurement can help weather changes in state leadership. Sustainability planning and implementation builds staff and stakeholder commitment as well as knowledge and expertise that goes deeper than individual influencers in the executive and legislative branches. The work to establish a shared vision, goals, and strategies with stakeholders, and to prioritize mutual communication, partnerships, coalition building, and progress measurement is essential within the context of both expected and unanticipated changes in the elected and appointed officials in a state.

  • Status quo bias

    Sustainability planning and implementation is not about maintaining the status quo. Those involved in this process can establish a culture of continuous change and improvement. The vision for early childhood should guide the work, and a strong foundation for sustainability planning and implementation is based on that future vision. Next comes the work to analyze current programs, policies, and systems, and use of data and evidence to determine what to continue, modify, or eliminate. Data can be a powerful tool in making decisions more objective. Use a well-balanced group to engage in sustainability planning and implementation.
    Continuous quality improvement means being open to adaptation and modification, as well as continuation and discontinuation, of programs and policies. Ongoing use of data and information, in conjunction with the agreed-upon vision and principles and the engagement of stakeholders, will help to continue and deepen progress on behalf of young children and their families and the broader community.

  • The perception that sustainability planning and implementation is a threat to the continuation of an individual or organization’s work

    First, communicate a deep understanding of the hard work and important accomplishments of all of those involved. Build commitment to a common set of goals and guiding principles that are grounded in the original goals of that work. Use as much data as possible to inform decisions, and work cooperatively with a well-balanced planning team to identify the goals, objectives, and criteria that are used to determine the options for the sustainability plan.
    An ongoing commitment to communication and engagement with individuals and organizations is essential. Identifying the right individuals to engage in these relationships is an issue that the sustainability planning team should tackle when considering the differing perspectives that will affect the plan and its execution.

  • “Role” limitations of state staff in convening or facilitating the planning and implementation process

    Staff in state agencies may not be the best situated to convene or facilitate the sustainability planning process. State staff should be aware of and respect the limitations of their roles. State staff may need to take a backseat to others in the stakeholder community to enable the creation of a sound sustainability plan and implementation strategy. Strong leaders recognize when they do not have the authority or are not otherwise best situated for these efforts. These leaders will turn to those who can be most effective in convening or facilitating the sustainability planning process and its implementation.