The pandemic laid bare the lack of social safety nets in states, necessitating innovative solutions but also illuminating systemic problems. For example, when regular service-delivery routines for youth and families were disrupted during the pandemic, schools had to step in to make high-stakes public-health decisions, create new systems for delivery of food and nutrition for families, and provide families with technology and internet access. Individual educators were coordinating heroic response efforts and providing these services all on top of attending to teaching and learning. Schools were over-extended in response, which is not sustainable over the long term.
This example illustrates the opportunity for state leaders to take holistic and coherent approaches to meet the needs of children and families. Responsibility for child well-being is divided across many separate public agencies that often operate in silos. While specialization within government is sometimes required and beneficial, there is a need for coordination and collaboration to achieve intended outcomes.
Coordinating structures like children’s cabinets invite shared vision-setting and implementation-planning, enabling the whole to be greater than the sum of the parts and creating accountability across government agencies that increases coherence, efficacy and equity in public investments and ensures children and families get the support they need to thrive.
Children’s cabinets are formal, sustained coordinating structures composed of agency leaders working together to advance more effective, equitable and efficient services for children and families. While children’s cabinets vary in specific goals and structures, the purpose is to break down silos across government agencies and/or service providers to improve outcomes for children and families. For example, Indiana’s children’s cabinet identified opportunities to significantly improve screening of young children for developmental delays, which creates benefits across many types of outcomes (e.g., health and education) yet requires coordination across multiple agencies to execute effectively.
Children’s cabinets respond to and fit into the specific and unique context that exists in each state; there is no cookie-cutter approach that will work everywhere. As state leaders design children’s cabinets or refine an existing structure, below are three key considerations:
- Think big about improving childhood experiences and outcomes. Identify goals for youth and families that embody a deep belief in the worthiness of every child and that this can’t be met by one agency alone. Make sure children’s cabinets have a clear charge and mission that are aligned with the state’s priorities for improving childhood experiences and outcomes.
- Break down silos. Take an end-user perspective to understand how children and families experience the bureaucracy, then develop more seamless systems that break down barriers to effective service. Create a culture where agency leaders are incentivized to collaborate and celebrated for achieving shared, common goals. Formalize the membership and authority of the children’s cabinet to be clear about how the work will be operationalized.
- There is no substitute for leadership attention. The culture of specialization that leads to silos can be common in government agencies, so realizing greater coordination and collaboration calls for encouragement by senior leaders. Children’s cabinets can only be as effective as the leadership investment in making them work.
As we shift from crisis response to longer-term recovery, it is imperative to learn and apply lessons revealed during the pandemic. The Aspen Institute’s Education & Society Program and the Forum for Youth Investment developed a discussion guide to support state leaders in designing new children’s cabinets or optimizing existing ones. The discussion guide includes a set of key questions that state leaders can ask themselves and each other to deliver on the promise of public investments that help children and families — and ultimately the state and society — to thrive.