At Our Core

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 definition?

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:

  • Be clear and easy for everyone to understand.
  • Offer enough definition that people can know what is and what is not part of the program.
  • 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 Help Me Grow National Center not only defines what the Help Me Grow Model is all about on its website, but it also clearly outlines its core components and structural requirements.

The Help Me Grow Model has four core components:

  • A Centralized Access Point assists families and professionals in connecting children to the grid of community resources that help them thrive.
  • Family & Community Outreach builds parent and provider understanding of healthy child development, supportive services available to families in the community, and how both are important to improving children’s outcomes.
  • Child Health Care Provider Outreach supports early detection and intervention efforts and connects medical providers to the grid of community resources to best support families.
  • Data Collection & Analysis supports evaluation, helps identify systemic gaps, bolsters advocacy efforts, and guides quality improvement.

The Help Me Grow Model has three structural requirements:

  • An Organizing Entity provides administrative and fiscal oversight and helps identify and coordinate partners.
  • Spread & Scale is essential to achieving the greatest possible reach and impact.
  • Continuous System Improvement ensures the effort is always improving and adapting to provide optimal value.

Throughout all of the programs that make up Connecticut Children’s Office for Community Child Health, 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 associate director of operations, business strategy and institutional engagement for Connecticut Children’s Office for Community Child Health.

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