Skip to main content

Rapidly building unemployment services during the pandemic

By Sharon Warner and Kalvin Wang

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Nava partnered with the State of California’s Employment Development Department (EDD) to build and deploy two digital services on the cloud, in just three months.

Together we quickly released two high-quality services to meet the needs of both EDD and claimants in California. The first: a guide—visited by more than a million people in its first week—to help claimants understand the expanded unemployment benefits passed under the 2020 CARES Act. The second: a retroactive certification web application that allowed people to verify their unemployment status and enabled EDD to stay compliant with US Department of Labor (DOL) standards.

Learn more about the user research that informed the retroactive certification web application in Prioritizing Research to Quickly Serve People During a Crisis.

Approach

During a crisis every day counts, and a partnership with the Office of Enterprise Technology (OET), a forward-thinking modern DevOps partner in California’s Department of Technology, supercharged our velocity. Alongside OET, we could get straight to work building software to deliver fast, accurate, and compliant services for Californians.

Building relationships with partners in a wide variety of environments is a cornerstone of Nava’s approach. While we’ve worked with partners that have very little pre-existing infrastructure—we set up AWS cloud infrastructure for CMS during the Healthcare.gov crisis response—some that have extensive systems in place, like the State of Vermont, and everything in between, OET is at the latter end of the spectrum. Like Nava, OET employs modern DevOps practices like infrastructure-as-code and continuous integration and deployment (CI & CD). Using agile practices in tandem, we were able to deliver new services in a couple months.

Outcomes

Within just three weeks, we determined the scope of work with EDD, designed four versions of the user flow, tested and iterated with eight claimants, completed three rounds of content review, and built and deployed the unemployment benefits guide on EDD’s website.

In the first week, more than a million unique visitors used the guide to understand newly-expanded unemployment benefits passed under the 2020 CARES Act. The system supporting the guide can easily handle 200,000 concurrent visitors, with even higher requests per second.

Within six weeks, we built, tested, and deployed the retroactive certification application, which over a million claimants successfully used in the following months. Ninety-five percent of claimants who began the certification completed it.

Process

Action-oriented partners

From the start, OET was able to make quick, effective decisions that enabled the team to hit the ground running. In our very first meeting, OET agreed to set up a staging environment in Azure, along with a Github repository with a vanilla Javascript/Node/Express web application, based on one of several templates they’d prepared. By the next day, they had the environment and repo ready for us to push code to: we could get straight to work building the guide and retroactive certification application.

But, even reliable infrastructure has problems, and it’s often not immediately clear which part of the tech stack is the problem. Thankfully, we could rely on OET to help us quickly investigate issues. When we reported issues to OET, they proactively scheduled live video conferences and screenshares to address them. These meetings enabled swift and effective fixes. In them, we gathered full context and actively troubleshooted, accomplishing in 30 minutes what often takes multiple weeks of back-and-forth.

Thoughtful compliance

Compliance and security requirements are critical in government systems that handle sensitive data. Unfortunately, those requirements are often interpreted and applied subjectively, which can hinder important progress on programs that serve the public.

OET ensured compliance with all government requirements and automated it where possible. This approach (a result of motivated vision, expertise, and effort) freed up our time to effectively meet systems requirements and move projects forward.

Constant improvement

Making small but constant improvements to our software and infrastructure is essential to modern, agile development practices, enabling us to rapidly deliver reliable and robust digital services. This principle is also baked into everything OET does.

For instance, before we launched in production, OET enabled autoscaling functionality for Azure and successfully load tested the guide at 100,000 requests per second (RPS), sending 11 million requests over two minutes, with fast response times and zero failed requests. While this result gave us confidence in OET’s infrastructure, we also knew we could continue improving on it.

Today, the system we built with OET can easily handle 200,000 concurrent users with even higher requests per second. Low-level technical infrastructure no longer bottlenecks critical services when a sudden surge of traffic occurs—which is also usually when people need that service most. Robust infrastructure ensures that services are available on demand.

Conclusion

As a result of our modern software development practices and our partnership with EDD and OET, we released two vital services in just three months, with only two developers staffed. Nava’s ability to build partnerships helped us rapidly deliver in a time of crisis. We’re especially grateful for OET’s DevSecOps Manager, Conrad Long, and his team’s perspective. As he told us:

We see our work [with Nava] as a true partnership… We’ll do better together, we’re learning from you too.

While many challenges have arisen for unemployment services nationwide, and California has experienced challenges with fraud, the work of modernizing these services is a continuous process. The value of quickly providing accessible unemployment services cannot be overstated, particularly in a time of so much hardship.

In a year of unprecedented distress, we were able to help people understand their benefits and retroactively certify their unemployment status. We’re grateful for the opportunity to work with OET to help serve Californians during this time.

Work with us

Let’s make government services simple, effective, and accessible to all. Get in touch.