How do you achieve speed and agility on unfamiliar ground?
In just the first six months of the pandemic, the nation’s childcare and early learning industry shrank by 20%. Instructors, whose pay was already at or below minimum wage, were particularly hard hit. In 2021, legislators in a southeastern state initiated a grant program to provide disaster relief funds to the state’s childcare and early learning instructors.
Under the program, more than 86,500 instructors across the state’s K–12, Title 1, Head Start and early learning centers were eligible for $2,000 each. The funds would need to be distributed in two payments of $1,000. The formidable task had fallen to the Division of Early Learning (DEL), a branch of the state’s Department of Education.
DEL oversees the state’s School Readiness Program, its Voluntary Pre-kindergarten Education Program and its Child Care Resource and Referral services. How would it also manage, with its limited time, funds and staff, to quickly distribute the two tranches of money among so many people? A change in life circumstances would add a layer of difficulty to the challenge (e.g., intended recipients who no longer work for the state or have changed addresses).
DEL sought the assistance of Ernst & Young LLP (EY US), and they began collaborating on the two-part project on June 16, 2021. The EY US team understood that time and funding constraints would require a process that, in addition to being secure, was streamlined, flexible and swift. All involved felt a sense of urgency about getting relief money to the state’s childcare and early learning instructors and directors.
The right people deploying the right technology
The team implemented EY Grants Accelerator (EYGA), built on Microsoft’s low code/no code Power Platform, to quickly deploy an external-facing portal where directors could apply for relief funding on behalf of their instructors.
Responding to challenges
The original scope of work was to:
- Deploy an EYGA enabling application submission on the front end, an application review on the back end and a data extract for the payment provider.
- Train DEL users to perform day-to-day activities in EYGA.
- Provide EYGA technical support for bugs, defects and enhancements.
But when challenges arose within the client environment and the scope of work changed, the team responded in real time. Key concerns were:
- An accelerated timeline
- Heightened customer support
- Unreliable data
An accelerated timeline
The team was prepared to face a significant deadline challenge based on the project’s scope of work, which stated that applications should be available in the external facing portal, “if possible by July 1, 2021, but in no event later than July 14, 2021.” The July 14 deadline would give the team only four weeks. In the past, it had taken six to eight weeks to stand up EYGA.
The timeline shrank even further after DEL learned that the governor was adamant about a July 1 deadline. The team members pulled together, their workdays stretching into nights. Ultimately, they launched EYGA in 10 days. Cheryl Fang, engagement manager and EYGA go-to-market leader, called the achievement a testament to the EYGA core product team’s ability to add many features over the last year.
Heightened customer support
As part of support services, the team provided call center agents to handle inbound and outbound calls, a central email for users to obtain assistance and translation services. The team had been told that the instructor population wasn’t highly tech savvy, so they expected a high volume of calls. But the initial go-live resulted in even more inquiries than they had anticipated and became unmanageable for the call center team.
Fang and another senior manager, Amy Fenstermacher, stepped in to serve as resources on “tier two” matters, while their teammates focused on “tier one” technical aspects. “We would be talking with them every day to say, ‘How can we solve such-and-such issue quickly?’,” Fang says. The ongoing feedback enabled real-time adjustments to managing the program.
The foundation of the team’s data was information imported from DEL’s source system as a spreadsheet. It listed provider facilities, directors, instructors and more. The team loaded the data so that in the application, when the director selected a facility, the instructors and their mailing addresses appeared.
“Things become outdated very quickly,” Fang says, “and there’s no mechanism to keep that information up to date.” The team had added more than 29,500 instructor records by the end of the first window of the project.
Many of the help desk interactions concerned specifics that took time. Despite the painstaking nature of the work, the team resolved nearly 50,000 email inquiries — more than 30,000 of those within the first three months.
Positive results reach far beyond learning facilities
The importance of early learning programs is well established. They can impact every aspect of a person’s life: their success, happiness and even health. Wages are modest for most of those who work in childcare and early learning. So when the COVID-19 pandemic dealt a blow to those programs, instructors across the US endured severe financial struggles.
Portion of aid distributed within five weeksOver 80%
Portion of $263m in relief aid distributed within the first five weeks of the project
The EY US engagement team was dedicated to DEL’s mission of seeing that qualified disaster relief payments reach eligible instructors quickly and securely. Over the course of the collaboration, DEL was able to distribute more than $162.3 million among tens of thousands of early learning instructors. More than 80% of it was distributed within the first five weeks of the engagement.
The teachers were completely appreciative, and a few were in tears when they found out that they were able to get this funding after all.
For EY US teams, witnessing the positive outcomes of successful collaborations is incredibly rewarding. And the ultimate reward is seeing the difference those results make in people’s lives. So it felt particularly meaningful when several instructors and directors expressed their gratitude. One wrote: “I cannot thank you enough for whomever has been answering and dealing with all my emails. The teachers were completely appreciative, and a few were in tears when they found out that they were able to get this funding after all.”
Supporting and incentivizing qualified instructors and personnel helps to restore or maintain the capacity that good programs demand. And when safe, quality childcare is available to families, it becomes easier for parents to balance work and home.
The ripple effects reach beyond families to touch communities and businesses, extending beyond all boundaries. Providing a solid foundation for children is one of the shortest routes to a better working world.