Building Strong Partnerships: Best Practices for WIC State Agency Vendors

Strong partnerships can make or break a project’s success. To understand what factors are critical to successful vendor-client partnerships when developing technology solutions for the WIC context, THIS-WIC interviewed participating telehealth vendors to understand their perspective on establishing partnerships with WIC State Agencies. Below are six key takeaways on forging a new telehealth vendor partnership.  

Work closely with State security and IT staff when creating a Request for Proposal (RFP) for your telehealth solution (if applicable)

Some states’ procurement processes may require a formal Request for Proposal (RFP) process to collect bids from potential vendors. In this case, WIC State Agencies should involve IT staff, including those focused on security, when creating a telehealth RFP. Vendors noted clear differences between states that worked closely with their IT staff and those that didn’t formally engage their IT teams in developing the RFP. According to one telehealth vendor, “[the State Agency RFP] felt really in line with an agile methodology, and the types of requirements that if I was working as a consultant hired by the State to say, ‘what do I think you should have in place to ensure that technology investment is responsibly used’ I would have made all those suggestions.” For example, if the solution will require cloud-based hosting, ensure IT staff address this aspect as part of the RFP. One expert stated, “if [the RFP] doesn’t speak to it, then you have to figure out what the state’s current policy is on that and figure out where it slips into (the work).” See Box 1 for an example RFP.

Engage vendors in the development of the grant proposal

If you want to leverage grant funding for a new telehealth solution, don’t hesitate to reach out to the telehealth vendor to participate in the grant proposal process. Vendors felt they could help detail the unique features of the solution and emphasize how it supports the key objectives of the grant. One expert shared that “as the State Agency submitted applications, we were working on all of them collaboratively. We were helping to provide language about how the solution could work (and meet grant expectations).” Engaging potential vendors at the earliest possible stages of the project helps ensure that all parties are in alignment about the project goals and how, if funded, the solution can be implemented.

Help vendors understand State Agency and USDA Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) requirements

One expert said that “having the right people who can answer the questions about all State requirements is really key at that early stage, especially if there’s a technology restriction in the contract…it’s good to have somebody who understands all these policies so that it is easier to progress.” Additionally, vendors recommend connecting directly with FNS to understand any federal policy requirements and implications for the new solution. One vendor noted, “sometimes states don’t always involve the vendor in the conversation with FNS. And there are perfectly appropriate conversations for us to be a part of to have that direct conversation and to be able to speak to, you know, the challenges they’re in because it’s really a three-entity partnership.”

Uncertainty about federal policies for future telehealth use in WIC 

State Agencies shouldn’t be shy about setting specific performance indicators and objectives for the solution. Put them in writing. According to one vendor, “having those really clear key performance indicators and objectives set from the start let us sort out (the next steps)…” States should use these expectations as a roadmap to ensure key milestones and deliverables are met.

Understand all aspects of a subscription-based contract 

Vendors recommended that WIC State Agencies think through all aspects of a subscription-based model. For example, WIC State Agencies should understand whether the vendor requires a license for each user (i.e. WIC staff member). If so, it’s crucial to plan for staff turnover and understand how licenses can be moved from one staff member to another to ensure the solution is being used as efficiently as possible.

Vendors emphasized that States should understand why vendors increasingly use subscription models.  “The other piece is licensing of software, versus owning it. WIC contracts, traditionally, have been along the lines of ‘you build it for a state.’ [the state] own[s] it, and it’s primarily because it’s federal funding and it should be transferable. But we’re now in a world where certain parts, especially like telehealth, is not the core WIC program, it’s just different type of upkeep that requires ongoing support.”

WIC agencies should carefully consider the pros and cons of various telehealth contract models, including subscription-based models, to understand what will best meet their agency needs in both the short and long term. See Box 2 questions to ask when considering subscription-based models.

Understand all aspects of a subscription-based contract 

Communication is essential for any successful relationship. Vendors emphasized the importance of maintaining frequent contact and timely responses to emails by WIC staff. Other vendors spoke to the value of open communication throughout the planning, development, and implementation of the telehealth solution. One vendor said they were invited to attend staff orientation sessions and the State Agency also organized weekly meetings during the planning process, allowing the telehealth vendor to communicate efficiently and directly with staff.