Beyond Technology: How a Federal-State Partnership and a Test and Learn Approach Can Deliver An Equitable Child Care Assistance System

Download the full project report here, or an action-oriented summary here.

Our focus

Only 2 million children currently receive child care subsidies out of the 12.5 million that are federally eligible, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).This was deemed to be the result of factors including insufficient funding, difficulties finding affordable care in appropriate locations, lack of crucial information leaving families unaware about their eligibility in existing programs, and high-friction application processes. 

It was these last two challenges, onerous applications and the lack of available information, that we felt might be particular areas where the Beeck Center’s expertise could play a role. 

In May of this year, we announced our study on how technology might play a part in improving the overall child care subsidy onboarding process and increase the percentage of eligible families receiving subsidies by improving the user experience (UX) of early childhood technology systems. Given the Beeck Center’s previous work, we speculated that a state-level intergovernmental software collaborative, in which state governments could share software to improve user accessibility, could mitigate such technical challenges by helping states implement better technology systems at lower costs. 

Through a research partnership with Child Care Aware of America (CCAoA), our work centered on federally-funded child care assistance as seen largely through the eyes of early childhood system leaders in Child Care Resource and Referral (CCR&Rs) agencies and home-based child care providers (HBCCs) in Arizona and Oregon. 

By focusing our mission through this lens, we brought a fresh perspective to these efforts and new voices to the conversation, ensuring to not  duplicate efforts of important work done by teams like New America’s New Practice Lab, Code for America, U.S. Digital Service, and the Administration for Children & Families’ Office of Child Care.

While this project originally sought to offer technology solutions, it quickly became clear through our research that the broader systemic challenges underlying user-facing systems outweighed the technology challenge. Consequently, we shifted from our original hypothesis-led approach of seeking technology solutions alone in favor of a discovery-oriented, iterative project that allowed us to consider the complex governance, policy, operational, market, and technical nuances each state faces. This multifaceted approach prioritized areas where CCR&Rs and government partners at State and Federal levels have the levers to drive long-term change.

Our findings

Our findings and insights are the product of a 12-week research sprint designed to elicit a better understanding of the challenges faced by key actors in federally-funded child care assistance programs. We summarized our findings and insights in both a full report and a shorter, action-oriented summary, both of which outline findings and actionable insights from our research, including: 

  • A discussion of systemic failures in the child care assistance landscape that tech-centric interventions often fail to account for, including a dysfunctional marketplace, fractured state-level administration and operations, and ineffective policy mechanisms. 
  • A bold vision for a federal-state partnership program informed by a test-and-learn experimentation strategy to promote more productive change in child care assistance delivery.
  • Key takeaways from interviews with home-based child care providers (HBCC), child care resource and referral agencies (CCR&R), families, and state government administrators.

We highlight systemic failures in three key areas:

  • A dysfunctional marketplace: the two-tiered marketplace for child care provision in the United States disadvantages the less well-off.
  • Fractured and siloed state-level administration: child care assistance programs across the U.S. are often exceedingly difficult to navigate for families and providers alike. 
  • Ineffective policy mechanisms: legislative and policy decisions made by state policymakers and administrators to govern child care assistance programs are overdetermined by the needs of administrators and fear of fraud rather than the needs of families and providers. 

Our research makes clear that civic tech practitioners must adopt a more systems-informed mindset as they intervene in the child care assistance system landscape to address these failures. 

We argue that, in partnership with states, stronger federal intervention is critical to accomplishing meaningful, systems-oriented change across the child care assistance system. The federal government could and should support states with a number of initiatives that might be difficult for them to achieve alone, including: 

  • Experimenting with system-level solutions by enabling a “sandbox” that reduces impediments and friction in the policy and regulatory environment.
  • Building simple, legible front-end delivery systems for families and providers participating in child care assistance programs. 
  • Moving through the more difficult and long-term work of back-end organizational redesign to support front-end delivery systems.

Our recommended way ahead

In order to achieve this we propose:

A Federal-State partnership program to deliver an innovation lab-style approach to experimentation and change. Led by a single service owner in each state, we imagine a program that conceptualizes, designs, tests, and delivers equitable and effective changes to child care assistance programs across the currently complex and fragmented  structure with the aim of delivering a simplified and unified child care system.

To deliver this daunting change, we recommend a “test and learn” approach to improvements across the child care system as a way to identify and implement equitable, effective, and elegant changes that take into account system-wide complexities. This involves identifying a prioritized list of improvements and interventions where the service owner and their team can start small, test, and learn before full investment and implementation. In this dynamic process we see a way to progress change that is realistic and achievable in a complex and interrelated system of delivery. Simultaneously, we must accept that no one action will resolve the citizen experience, but instead this goal requires a range of deliberate, tested, and coordinated interventions coming together to create tangible improvements at scale.

Our conclusion

State child care assistance systems face a number of complex and interconnected market, operational, and policy challenges. In this reality, states and the CCR&Rs they rely on as delivery partners struggle to engage in proactive, future-focused, strategic work to shift the status quo. 

To gain traction on these issues, we propose a strong federal-state partnership that can broker bold experimentation in child care assistance systems. We envision this partnership as rooted in sizable, state-led experiments that “test and learn” with the goal of increasing receipt and improving delivery of child care assistance for families and providers.

The call to improve child care assistance programs is clear and urgent. The systems-oriented strategy we lay out can empower and enable states to radically transform these programs in a way that is scalable and sustainable, and bring about meaningful, positive change for both families and providers.