By First 5 LA Executive Vice President John Wagner and Senior County Systems Strategist Reid Meadows

For decades, the politicians in Sacramento and Washington, D.C. have battled over whether government is too big or too small. Here in Los Angeles County, a better question is being asked: how can government work better for the people it serves?

Size doesn’t matter. Effectiveness does.

At First 5 LA, our North Star is that by 2028 all of L.A. County’s young children will enter kindergarten ready to succeed in school and life. That’s a big challenge. We are working to help change policies and practices of how the people in government agencies work with each other and with the staffs of nonprofits, foundations and community groups in order to more effectively serve kids and their parents.

How do you make a system composed of groups from several different sectors work better? You have to start with the customer – in this case parents and families – and listen to what they think. Then you have to be intentional about who to partner with. Together, you identify how the pieces work – or aren’t working – within the system. Then you and your partners develop a vision of how to make the system more effective. Here at First 5 LA, we are working in partnership with the county in several key areas aligned with our priorities.

The first is through our efforts with the Office of Child Protection (OCP) and the Center for Strategic Partnerships (“Center”), which includes the countywide Prevention Plan as well as Center-based initiatives to improve the child welfare system, where children under 5 are disproportionately represented.

The OCP Prevention Plan serves as a great example of how we can partner effectively with the county and add value to each other’s work. It connects to nearly every facet of our Strategic Plan – expanding home visiting, increasing access to early care and education, strengthening community and county networks, and developing countywide metrics to measure prevention and, in effect, community well-being. Currently, we’re on a roadshow visiting SPA-based community meetings and vetting our draft recommendations with family providers and parents.

The external presence builds First 5 LA’s visibility in new spheres and elevates our reputation as a leader and advocate for families of young children. For example, we’ve been invited to participate and weigh in on countywide efforts such as:the Los Angeles Early Care and Education Comprehensive Fiscal Analysis Project, the Portrait of L.A. County, the new County Office of Violence Prevention, the Center for Health Equity and a steering committee of the Center for Strategic Partnerships. This small yet influential office has piloted numerous systems-change efforts in the county and strengthened our relationships with both the philanthropic sector and county departments. Now we’ll have a hand in writing the Center’s next chapter as they transition to a permanent county office in service of the Board of Supervisors’ Six Priorities.

Taking a vertical view, First 5 LA has had a role in partnering with the county in order to drive local improvements within specific programs or services that can then be used to inform state efforts, such as home visiting. Since L.A. County Supervisors Sheila Kuehl (who also serves as First 5 LA’s Commission Chair) and Janice Hahn put forth a motion in 2016 to expand the system of home visiting in the county, First 5 LA – the largest funder of home visiting in L.A. County – has collaborated with the county on a number of fronts to expand home visiting, which currently only has the capacity to serve 12 percent of the county’s general population. Among the many commitments made by First 5 LA:

  • Partnered with the L.A. County Department of Public Health (DPH) to explore optimal integrated referral system development, including evaluating opportunities to integrate community resources, home visiting, Help Me Grow and other family resources into existing and/or new infrastructure
  • Funded focus group and research to help partners better understand the experiences and perspectives of African-American families when interfacing with the health and social sectors
  • Provided funding for the Children’s Data Network, which led long-term evaluation and actively participated in countywide data-sharing to support a cross-model, collective evaluation
  • Partnered with the L.A. County Department of Public Social Services (DPSS) and SHIELDS for Families on a pilot that provided home visiting to 50 families enrolled in CalWORKs

An update on our work with the county was provided during this month’s Board of Commissioners meeting, which featured a county partnership panel. Read more in the related article here.

First 5 LA’s work with the county takes us in many directions and new domains, all with the goal of making government more effective for young children and their families. At the same time, our active participation creates new early childhood champions throughout the county and infuses projects and initiatives with an early childhood lens.

While our Executive Director Kim Belshé often points out that systems change work “takes time” and is “messy and complicated,” she also reminds us that “we move at the speed of good decisions.”

While this work may not move fast, it is work worth doing because it is creating lasting change that will help all children in L.A. County.