When Kelly Matthews first attended the National Shared Services Technical Conference in 2017, it was purely an information-gathering opportunity.

In 2022, Kelly and seven other Wisconsin Early Education Shared Services Network (WEESSN) staff members attended to present Wisconsin as a model for innovation, collaboration and growth.

What a difference five years makes.

When Opportunities Exchange planned its 2022 conference in Austin, Texas, this April, it reached out to Wisconsin Early Childhood Association (WECA) to connect with WEESSN’s co-directors—Kelly Matthews and Paula Drew—about sharing the network’s story. Their presentation, “Going Big in Wisconsin: Building Shared Services Statewide,” walked attendees through WEESSN’s early days, the community support and collaboration that fostered its launch, and its relationship-based model for providing shared services.

This is the third time WECA staff attended the conference, which is held every two years (with a pandemic leap year in 2021), and WEESSN’s growth mirrors the early care and education (ECE) shared services movement championed by Opportunities Exchange. This year the theme was “Think Big,” and it was the largest to date, with 425 registrants from 39 states. For comparison, in 2017 there were about two dozen shared service networks nationally compared to 32 states and the District of Columbia in 2022.

“Having attended this conference several years ago, when WEESSN was just a vision of what could be, it was rewarding to be able to share our story. Attendees learned a lot and we got to further deepen the relationships that helped see us this far,” said Kelly.

Kelly’s initial conversations at the 2017 conference were used to build WECA’s understanding of shared services and launch WEESSN. In 2019, during WEESSN’s first year, five staff members attended and shared about their success in attracting family child care providers in rural Wisconsin.

This year, there was a much bigger story: WEESSN is viewed as an innovator in providing child care programs with technical assistance, automation, and sustainability services to increase efficiency and save them time and money. The team shared information about its statewide expansion and three tiers of service.

One of the topics highlighted at this year’s event was financial sustainability. “The influx of COVID-relief funds led to a surge of growth in ECE support in many states, but careful planning is crucial to ensure programs can continue. Strategic expansion to maintain staffing and efficient delivery of programs is vital,” said Paula. “This is something we are keenly aware of at WEESSN.”

The conference was a huge learning experience for the WEESSN team. Eight staff members attended in person and seven had virtual access—plus everyone can tap into recorded sessions. “One of the best things about the shared services movement is how willing people are to share! There are many different approaches across the states and there is so much we can learn from each other—both challenges and successes,” commented Paula.

Kelly concurred: “The level of sharing, cooperation and support is amazing. It’s much like open-source software, where we all put our tools out there for others to work with. You don’t have to recreate the wheel—people freely share documents, best practices, all kinds of resources. And each group modifies those inputs to fit their own goals, provider preferences and other needs.”

What were the main takeaways? “We felt reinforced in the approach WEESSN is taking. We are already doing strong equity work, promoting good business practices, and developing a deep level of engagement with providers,” Paula said. “There is so much to be done, but we are well positioned to do this vital work.”

“Shared Services is a new approach to ECE administrative leadership that requires a fresh look at the typical business model as well as bold leadership focused on maximizing technology, identifying key business metrics to benchmark progress and rethinking many accountability measures traditionally embraced by the field.” commented Louise Stoney, co-founder of Opportunities Exchange. “WEESSN has quickly become a national leader in this space, helping ECE leaders across the nation better understand the pathway to change. We are inspired by their work and honored to be sharing their journey.”

The next challenges for the movement include developing technology to create greater interoperability with data systems at the state level. This will enable faster data sharing and tracking, making it easier for child care providers to passively share information with multiple agencies without having to manually enter it every time.

“Interoperability can also pinpoint challenges in different communities utilizing real-time data,” commented Paula. “For example, we know how many programs are providing licensed care in the state, but we don’t know how many infant slots are available in a given community, or how much the staffing crisis is impacting access to care. Additionally, we can also leverage this type of technology to map resources and opportunity gaps to ensure community-based assets are being utilized and like-minded efforts are aligned.”

WEESSN wants to leverage its network to tell a bigger story about Wisconsin and provide more targeted support for ECE providers. It also is working to develop a data dashboard that will enable better data mining and tracking in real time, allowing the network to be more strategic in developing its services.

“We are reaching out to community development groups and talking about the unique opportunity WEESSN offers for them to support child care engagement. Our focus is on creating and sustaining a public good—affordable and efficient child care—that is foundational to the health of our communities at a personal, business and community level. We want to understand what isn’t being addressed yet and how to meet those needs.” said Kelly.

“We are coming back from Austin energized and inspired. Connecting with our colleagues, sharing our story, and learning from leaders like Rhian Evans (NAEYC) and Louise Stoney (Opportunities Exchange) was an incredible gift,” said Paula.

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