What is Good Program Definition?

By: Scott Orsey

Are you struggling to explain your program to potential supporters? Is your program a wild success and worthy of replication, but others just don’t get it? Are you looking to put pen to paper and document your program?

A quick internet search will turn up a number of articles that step through business planning and program definition. Many are very good. But what’s best for explaining the essence of your program to others? At Connecticut Children’s Office for Community Child Health, we have given a lot of thought as to how best define a program and would like to share what has worked for us.

Our approach has been to keep things as simple as possible. At a minimum good program definition must do these three things:

  1. Be clear and easy for everyone to understand,
  2. Offer enough definition that people can know what is and what is not the program, and
  3. Be flexible enough to allow practitioners discretion in implementation.

This third point cannot be over emphasized. In the famous words of the late Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, “all politics is local.” It is important that program definition is not so prescriptive that it interferes with people’s world view or attempts to implement.

We have sought a framework that meets these conditions and can be used for any program. It seeks to answer two questions:

  1. What are the “core components” that must be part of the program? These core components represent the essence of the program. They are internal conditions. What can’t the program do without? Normally these can be boiled down to three to five essential elements. Things like the program office, an outreach campaign or a data collection approach might be core components.
  2. What are the “structural requirements” that allow the program to succeed? These are required environmental elements that must be in place for success. They are external conditions. Things like a champion, funding or existing infrastructure might be structural requirements.

To give you a better idea of how we apply this framework to our programs, let’s take a closer look at our Help Me Grow® National Center. The Center not only defines what Help Me Grow® is all about on its website, but it also clearly outlines its core components and structural requirements.

The Center has four core components: child health care provider outreach to support early detection and intervention; community and family outreach to promote the use of Help Me Grow® and to provide networking opportunities among families and service providers; the utilization of a centralized telephone access point for connecting children and their families to services and care coordination; and data collection to understand all aspects of the Help Me Grow® system including the identification of gaps and barriers.

The Center has three structural requirements: serving as an organizing entity; facilitating statewide expansion; and implementing a process for continuous quality improvement. To help website visitors better understand each element, additional links provide further explanations about the Help Me Grow® National Center’s core components and structural requirements.

We have found that once the core components and structural requirements are defined, people are more likely to understand what the program is about. They can grasp the scope of the work. Likewise they learn what is not happening. They can see the boundaries.

From our perspective a good definition of core components and structural requirements is table-stakes for a conversation. How else can we know what we are talking about?

Scott Orsey is the Director of Operations & Strategy for Connecticut Children’s Office for Community Child Health. Learn more »

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