Combine commercial & custom solutions for flexible, future-proof software

Using a combination of Commercial Off-the-Shelf (COTS) tools and custom software can help government agencies modernize or build new digital services that are cost-effective, reliable, and flexible.

Federal and local governments provide an incredibly broad range of services — from healthcare to housing to food assistance — to millions of people across the US. Each service is informed by its own laws and policies. And each agency and program that delivers those services is unique in size, staff, and budget. When looking to build a digital service that meets their own diverse needs, agency leaders evaluate a range of approaches to software: from something totally custom to a one-size-fits-all solution, also known as Commercial Off-the-Shelf (COTS) tools.

But because there’s an abundance of services and needs in government, what works for one program may not work for another without significant adaptation. Adapting COTS to fit the specific needs of a program and the people it serves can be a time-consuming process, with unexpected costs, resulting in inflexible and difficult-to-maintain systems. Likewise, a totally custom solution can require more resources than necessary.

Thankfully, agencies don’t need to choose between COTS or a totally custom system. There’s a range of cost-effective, reliable, and flexible solutions available with a hybrid approach to building software, using both COTS and custom tools.

Some COTS are good

COTS tools promise a tried-and-true, cost-effective, ready-made solution. And in some cases, they are the best option. The most effective COTS products are designed to solve one problem really well. For example, Nava has implemented third-party identity management tools, and we’ve also built custom, highly reliable identity management systems. In both scenarios, we delivered an easy user experience that also met high security standards.

According to 18F, using COTS solutions that aren’t actively used outside of government can put the cost of nonstandard or outdated practices—and the technical debt that comes from using obscure products—upon agencies. 18F has a useful framework for evaluating whether or not a COTS solution might work for you.

COTS and custom hybrid solutions are better

18F highlights the State of Alaska’s approach to developing a modern eligibility system as an example of a hybrid approach. A hybrid approach acknowledges that one size does not fit all, but uses the components or patterns that are common to government services—like identity management, document verification, and claims status—and can be modified and loosely coupled by well-defined APIs. This enables agencies to quickly and consistently deliver services that help people now, while also building a flexible foundation that supports long-term technical evolution.

Consider Nava’s work with the State of Vermont. To make it easier for Vermonters to apply for or renew benefits for critical Health and Human Services programs like the Disabled and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), we created a document uploader. The tool allows Vermonters to submit documentation using the camera on their phone. We also used a COTS solution — Okta — for the identity and access management system. Using this COTS product allowed us to focus our efforts on other work that benefits Vermonters. To come up with this solution, we looked at Vermont’s pre-existing tools and its goals for modernization.

With modest effort we made a significant improvement: 55 percent of users were able to submit documents within one day of the State requesting them, compared to just 11 percent before. The tool also minimizes risk because it was built to be easy to update as needs evolve: with a standard design system; modular, reusable software; and documented APIs that define data inputs and outputs. The uploader is readily adaptable, and easy to maintain and operate for both Vermont and other agencies. The uploader was cited by Tara Dawson McGuinness and Hana Schank in their new book, Power to the Public, as an example of how small steps can create powerful change for government staff and the public.

From the beginning, build for the future

Using customized tools isn’t necessary for every technical project. When modernizing legacy systems or launching a program from scratch, challenge your vendors to create lasting, flexible products — starting at the bid phase.

The COVID pandemic taught us that programs will change. They’ll have to respond to fluctuating demand and evolving policies. Rigid technology shouldn’t stand in the way of building a responsive, human-centered program that’s ready for whatever the future holds.

Let’s work together

Since 2014, Nava has been trusted to solve some of the most urgent, challenging, and highly scrutinized government technology projects. We’d love to hear about yours. Get in touch.

Special thanks to Laura Lanford, VP of Engineering, and Loren Yu, Senior Software Engineer and Cofounder, for their feedback on this piece.

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