Technical Assistance Guidelines Step 3: Determine the TA Program Structure

Once you have worked through the first two steps described above, you can determine the TA program structure. Deciding on the specific design elements of a TA program can help you narrow in on further details around the most effective contracting approach, project management structure, evaluation strategy, and other key components. Program design decisions should reflect findings and recommendations from the needs and gaps analysis phase as well as the goal-setting process. This section will help you decide what model of TA makes the most sense for anticipated outcomes, contracting processes that can support the most effective implementation of the TA program, and recommendations for incorporating public participation, evaluation, and long-term sustainability into your TA design.

Provider: In-House versus Third-Party TA

When designing a TA program, agencies need to decide whether agency staff will provide the entirety of the TA or if the agency will hire a third-party team. When hiring a third-party TA provider, you should remain integrally involved in TA provision, either through training TA providers and responding to technical questions or working alongside third-party TA providers to provide complementary community assistance. You should view TA as an opportunity to build stronger relationships with local TA recipients and as a chance to augment the State’s capacity to engage at the local level. The following table summarizes some of the benefits and downsides to both approaches.

In-House TA
Pros
  • Potentially more cost-effective if dedicated staff are available
  • Can build relationships directly between local stakeholders and agency staff
  • Avoids RFP or contracting processes
Cons
  • Can be difficult to implement if agency lacks trust or relationships with local stakeholders
  • Can be resource-intensive given the need across communities
  • Can bring into question the impartiality of agencies in reviewing grant applications
Supplemental Third-Party TA
Pros
  • Allows State agency staff to maintain neutrality in a competitive grant-making process
  • Enables deeper engagement with communities than may be possible with agency staff
  • Can enable greater reach across communities, especially where the State does not have relationships
  • Typically requires less demands on program staff’s time
  • Can build the capacity of local community organizations or other trusted partners through a contract with the State
Cons
  • Requires project management of third-party provider
  • Requires third-party contracting process
  • Costly depending on contract size and intended program goals
  • Limits opportunities to build relationships directly with communities
  • An underperforming TA provider can lead to more problems and lack of trust
  • The State needs a strong justification for why a third-party contractor is needed

In the case of a competitive grant program, third-party TA may be especially valuable because it allows State agency staff to maintain neutrality and avoid any perception of bias towards one applicant or another. This is especially important for agencies that enforce a “black-out period” in which they cannot communicate with any applicants once the solicitation has been released. Black-out periods can present a barrier for grant applicants because they may make it more difficult for applicants to receive answers to important questions in a timely manner. Technical assistance can be particularly valuable to ensure that under-resourced applicants that lack access to experienced consultants have a fairer chance of receiving funding.

In addition, some TA recipients may feel more comfortable airing grievances about barriers they face in the application process or admitting to weaknesses in their applications when engaging with a non-state TA provider. When TA providers report this information to State agencies, it helps the latter better understand barriers embedded in their programs. In addition, the applicants’ transparency creates an opportunity for third-party TA providers to offer encouragement and support that may not be feasible or appropriate for State agency staff to provide in order to get applications to the finish line and ultimately result in stronger projects. Third-party TA providers can also offer encouragement and support that may not be feasible or appropriate for State agency staff to provide to get applications to the finish line.

Select the Right Approach

Though TA can be delivered in a variety of ways, the main approaches fall into three categories: Capacity Building, Application Assistance, and Implementation Assistance. Each approach corresponds to a different stage of planning for or implementing a project or policy initiative. In some cases, a TA program may employ elements of one or more phases depending on the level of support that an agency deems necessary to meet program goals. When providing TA for under-resourced communities, it is generally best to provide longer-term assistance from the same TA provider to support TA recipients through all stages – partnership development, community engagement, project conception, and implementation.

For example, recognizing that not all communities are at the same level of readiness, SGC’s Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities (AHSC) TA program meets applicants where they are to help them move closer to the goal of developing an AHSC project. The AHSC TA program provides direct application-based TA to recipients deemed ready through a pre-application survey. Those not yet ready to apply to the program receive capacity building support. This dual approach helps ensure that the TA program responds to communities that fall within a spectrum of readiness and helps to build more productive relationships between the State and local stakeholders.

TA Approaches

TA Approach Description
Capacity Building Seeks to equip communities with tools, resources, knowledge, and connections that support developing strategies for meeting specific needs. Often occurs outside of the application window. Does not need to be specific to any single funding program.
Application Assistance Provides assistance to applications within an application window to help with challenging elements of grant application processes, such as: demonstrating robust partnerships and meaningful community engagement, developing data collection and evaluation methodologies, or pulling together data and other relevant information.
Implementation Assistance Supports communities that have been awarded projects to provide assistance in implementing complex and unique aspects of a project or supporting tasks that an under-resourced agency or organization may not be able to implement fully.

Capacity Building

Capacity building programs seek to equip communities with tools, resources, knowledge, and connections that support developing strategies for meeting specific needs. The goal of capacity building programs is to build long-term sustainable action to complex issues and not create a dependency on third party providers. Potential capacity building activities through TA may involve:

  • Conducting outreach and building awareness of grant programs or State policy priorities
  • Convening stakeholders to discuss community needs and potential solutions
  • Supporting project conceptualization, incubation, and development
  • Developing community-engaged project plans that respond to local needs
  • Supporting the development of partnerships between stakeholders and potential project partners
  • Advising on the development of multi-benefit projects and identifying alignment with potential funding sources
  • Creating tools and processes to support sustained action at the community scale
  • Assisting with policy development or implementation in response to state mandates and/or community needs

The audience for capacity building TA can include local agency staff as well as community-based organizations and other local entities. Capacity building programs typically focus on education, partnership development, public engagement, and increasing project readiness. For example, this type of TA may involve convening stakeholders to define the scope of a project and map out the steps, and then providing support to secure funding and implement it. To maximize the impacts of these activities, plan for sustained engagement and iterative feedback over longer periods of time. Consider that this approach to TA may require more upfront investment of time and resources.

The level of engagement from agency staff and TA providers varies across capacity building programs, depending on the goals of the project. Some capacity building programs may provide less-intensive assistance, such as hosting public education workshops. In other cases, capacity building programs can involve a high degree of involvement and include a variety of different strategies including education, policy analysis and support, and public engagement. Determining the bounds of the TA and communicating that to TA recipients from the beginning can avoid friction later in the process.

Depending on the program’s goals and intended outcomes, agency staff, TA providers, and TA recipients should agree on the full scope of capacity building activities to carry out during the project term. Staff should work closely with the TA recipient to determine this scope to ensure that the assistance responds appropriately to the assets and needs of the TA recipient. For example, a lack of time and resources may be a more significant barrier for some low-capacity jurisdictions than a lack of knowledge or skills. In this case, providing workshops or trainings would be ineffective and may even seem patronizing to the TA recipient, which could jeopardize opportunities for coordination and relationship-building. Understanding the recipient’s needs and priorities early on can help ensure that the TA meets the goals of both the agency and the recipient.

While the goal of capacity building programs may be to increase a community’s ability to successfully apply for funds or implement a project, the lasting impact of capacity building TA is difficult to quantify through traditional data metrics. You should expect to invest additional time and effort into creating strategies to measure the impact of capacity building programs in communities and making the case for ongoing support.

Taking stock of your agency’s existing relationships with TA recipients and staff capacity to carry out TA can help you determine whether in-house TA is feasible or whether a third-party provider would be more appropriate. Capacity building programs are often more effective when the State can partner with local trusted organizations to sustain elements of the TA program into the future. If you choose to provide in-house TA, intentionally developing relationships with such local organizations will be important to support the long-term sustainability and resiliency of the capacity building effort.

Application Assistance

Application assistance is a common form of TA offered to communities. Application TA recognizes that applying for State funding programs can be challenging, given the need to demonstrate robust partnerships and meaningful community engagement, develop data collection and evaluation methodologies, and pull together vast quantities of information. These challenges are more pronounced in under-resourced communities that lack staff capacity, local plans, and/or networks of community-based partners. The following are common components of application assistance TA programs:

  • Public outreach workshops
  • Assistance for applicants in understanding grant requirements
  • Partnership engagement
  • Grant writing assistance
  • Data quantification
  • GIS mapping support
  • Environmental review

Though application TA commonly takes place over a shorter period than capacity building programs, it can incorporate elements of capacity building. This is especially true if the TA creates resources, tools, case studies, and other products that communities can use in subsequent funding rounds or to continue similar projects. Depending on the funding program, application assistance TA can vary from limited engagement with TA recipients to a more hands-on approach. Among other considerations, depending on whether the funding program is competitive or allocation-based, you may choose between an in-house TA approach or hiring a third-party TA provider. Often, with competitive programs, agency staff may not wish to or be allowed to provide direct application assistance TA in order to maintain impartiality.

Implementation Assistance

Agencies sometimes provide implementation TA to certain communities after they have received an award from the State. In other cases, State agencies may offer implementation assistance to support communities in implementing a policy that furthers State goals. Similar to other TA approaches, implementation assistance TA can vary from relatively low involvement (e.g. producing guidance and factsheets) to a more hands-on approach (support implementing a workforce development strategy to ensure that a funded project benefits local priority populations, for example). As more State funding programs seek to address a variety of community needs through grant programs, funding additional TA can support implementation of non-traditional aspects of awards. For example, SGC manages third-party contracts to support its Transformative Climate Communities Program (TCC) grantees in implementing workforce development and anti-displacement strategies, along with other critical activities to ensure that infrastructure investments funded through the grant program lead to equitable outcomes.

Setting a Community Engagement Strategy

For some TA programs, especially those that provide very limited or specialized services, TA may involve few local partners to meet program goals. However, in most cases, TA programs should seek to engage a variety of local stakeholders and community members to develop or implement programs. Setting a clear engagement strategy at the outset of your TA effort can help ensure the effectiveness of this critical component of TA delivery and help determine other elements of your TA, such as the program timeline, TA providers, budget, and evaluation.

To avoid wasting scarce resources on assistance that does not meet community needs, ensure that contract budgets and schedules allocate plenty of time for community engagement in the beginning of a TA project timeline. Note that if community engagement related to the project has already been conducted, it is important to thoroughly analyze that data to avoid wasting community members’ time with the same questions.

When designing your TA program, consider strategies to maximize meaningful and sustained engagement. Some examples include:

  • Collaborate with CBO networks and coalitions to engage traditionally under-represented populations
  • Fund local CBO and other trusted organizations to provide outreach and engagement support through the TA program to facilitate effective community participation
  • Hire CBOs and other trusted organizations or individuals as primary TA recipients
  • Create resources or hold workshops and other engagement activities to build partners’ understanding of the program and capacity to engage
  • Encourage peer-to-peer collaboration across similar communities through facilitated networking events
  • Compensate CBO and resident participation in events and workshops. Secure funding for childcare, food, and other components of effective events

The California Air Resources Board has developed “Best Practices for Community Engagement and Building Equitable Projects” that includes more detail on other public engagement best practices.

Identify Metrics and an Evaluation Plan

It is best to design evaluation metrics and processes into the TA program from the outset. TA program evaluation, whether done internally or by a third-party consultant, can help identify successful practices as well as refinements to meet program goals and community needs more effectively. If a dedicated evaluation of the TA program itself is not feasible, agency staff may consider including TA in the evaluation of the overall funding program or policy initiative. Third-party evaluators can offer more objective analysis and help program staff that do not have an analytical background develop robust evaluation methodologies. Answering the following questions can help you embed TA evaluation into the overall design of a program:

  • Should the TA evaluation be done by a third-party consultant or in-house?
  • Will the TA be evaluated on its own or part of the broader funding or policy program?
  • What methodologies already exist for evaluating similar TA programs?
  • What outputs and outcomes will help inform on the success or the program?
  • Who will be tasked with collecting data and insights from the TA program?
  • Who are the intended audiences for the evaluation (e.g. funding agency, communities receiving TA, legislature, policy makers, etc.)?

More information about developing a TA evaluation strategy appears in the Evaluation page.

Facilitate Program Sustainability

Another key consideration in developing a TA program is the sustainability and replicability of the TA services. In many cases, TA programs are unable to provide the same degree of TA to every eligible community in each round. Consider how the TA services and outcomes can be sustained and replicated within the communities that have received TA as well as other communities throughout the state. For example, deliverables such as toolkits, technical tools, resource libraries, and case studies make it possible to reach larger numbers of TA recipients in future funding rounds.