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Collaborative Efforts Found To Improve Quality of Services

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Efforts to link agencies and organizations that serve young children and families have made "positive differences" in the quality, scope, and cost-effectiveness of services, a new study maintains.

The study, headed by Sharon L. Kagan, associate director of Yale University's Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy, says interagency collaboration is flourishing as a strategy to improve programs, conserve resources, and address family needs that "transcend rigid bureaucratic and policy structures."

"Collaborations are emerging as one solution to today's human-services challenges," particularly in the field of early-childhood care and education, Ms. Kagan notes.

The report, "Collaborations in Action: Reshaping Services for Young Children and their Families," catalogs the history, goals, structure, and accomplishments of 72 collaboratives and offers a detailed analysis of what makes such efforts effective.

The subJects were picked from more than 300 nominations by early-childhood educators, Head Start directors, human-services professionals, and national organizations. The study is based on telephone interviews and written materials from the collaboratives, which are defined as "multilateral efforts that unite organizations and people to achieve com4mon goals that could not be accomplished by any single organization."

The collaboratives studied were launched by a wide range of education, Head Start, child-care, and social-services providers.

Almost all the collaboratives in the study were deemed successful in bolstering the quality and quantity of services, addressing "systemic inconsistencies that impeded the equitable and effective distribution of services," or both.

For example:

The maJority expanded training opportunities for early-childhood teachers and caregivers. About 61 percent offered training themselves, 74 percent Joined forces with other education programs, and 53 percent offered state, local, or regional conferences or workshops.

Many spurred reforms in service delivery. About 40 percent promoted consistent regulations for child-care in their communities, 31 percent helped develop tighter standards of quality, 36 percent helped drive legislation on licensing or monitoring, and 25 percent produced or piloted model delivery systems.

Nearly 70 percent of the collaboratives reported increasing "Joint planning and communication among child-care services."

The maJority enhanced parent involvement in child care, 76 per8cent fostered bonds between parents and providers, and 67 percent provided parent education.

By heightening providers' awareness of other programs, forging links between them, and creating a base for information and referral, 78 percent of the collaboratives reported expanding the range of services available to children and families.

Many improved families' access to services by pushing for such measures as increased child-care subsidies, tax credits for employers who provide on-site care, or funding for child-care transportation.

More than 80 percent of the collaborations reported more effective use of existing resources as a result of their work, and 19 percent raised new funds through private-public sector partnerships.

About half the collaboratives issued reports alerting the public to inequities in early-childhood services, and 71 percent made equity gains by working to stem competition among programs. For example, 21 percent eased competition by promoting equitable compensation among providers in their areas.

By helping educate providers, consumers, and the public about services, the report says, collaboratives have advanced children's advocacy. Nearly half have members who testify often at legislative or government hearings.

The report notes that the political context of the collaboratives is critical to their success.

"The collaborative ethos is most strong when support exists at multiple levels of government and endures over time," it says.

For example, the study attributes Florida's "long-term commitment" to interagency coordination partly to the fact that it never disbanded the "child-care coordinating councils" that the federal government launched in the 1970's. The councils served as a "hub" to foster and sustain collaboratives statewide, Ms. Kagan says.

By contrast, "collaboration is often frowned upon" in communities with a history of interagency antagonism, unsupportive leaders, or strict regulatory barriers, the study notes.

The report cites the benefits of shared leadership and the dangers of "burnout" among individual leaders. But it also advises that "it may be prudent to discern mechanisms to keep powerful initiators involved, even if only tangentially."

The study also suggests that a collaborative's goals may affect its ability to draw support.

Those aimed at reforming service systems, for example, were less apt to garner financial backing than those designed to upgrade services.

The study showed 93 percent of the collaboratives geared to improve or expand local services had stable operating funds, compared with 43 percent of those designed to revamp state human-services systems.

"Collaborations may do well to include a dual mission" combining systemic change with a service component, Ms. Kagan advises. About half the collaboratives in the study were service-oriented, while the rest were divided between those aimed at system reform and those with dual missions.

Local collaboratives fared far better in eliciting business-sector aid than state-level ones, and those that pooled resources among partners--even if it meant bending funding rules--tended to be more "durable."

The report says mandates for collaboration--such as those included in legislation providing services for the handicapped, the homeless, and welfare beneficiaries--can foster new collaborations and "help legitimize the concept," especially at the state level.

But many voluntary collaboratives "seem to thrive magnificently," observes Ms. Kagan, and those spurred by mandates sometimes prove too restrictive or inflexible.

Regardless of their goals or origin, Ms. Kagan notes, according collaboratives "maximum flexibility and support" is critical.

More information on the report is available from Ms. Kagan or Ann Marie Rivera, Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy, Yale University, P.O. Box 11A, Yale Station, New Haven, Conn. 06520.

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