Implementing paid family and medical leave in the digital age

As the U.S. considers broader paid family and medical leave programs, there’s a unique opportunity to get them right — with technology and policy — from the start.

A Black woman holds a baby while using her laptop.

My employer does not provide any paid maternity leave, and my husband got one whole week of paid paternity leave. So, I drained my bank of sick and vacation time to stay home for 12 weeks. When I returned to work full-time, I had no way to take half-days or days when my baby got sick or even needed a routine pediatrician visit.


Unfortunately, this quote from a report by MomsRising is a common experience for many parents across the country. In the US, people go into debt or lose their jobs for having a baby or caring for a family member. Nearly one in four mothers return to work within two weeks of giving birth and one in five retirees left or were forced to leave the workforce earlier than planned to care for an ill family member. Ninety-five percent of the lowest wage workers, mostly women and workers of color, lack any access to paid family leave.

The American Families Plan includes a critical benefit: 12 weeks of paid leave to new parents; people who are healing from an illness; caregivers for a sick family member; and survivors of sexual assault, stalking, and domestic violence seeking a safe environment. Paid leave is linked to lower infant mortality rates among other benefits, and Americans widely support it. While paid leave is a relatively new program in the US, ten states have passed legislation and eight have implemented the program. Massachusetts is one of these trailblazing states, and Nava is honored to work with them as they roll out their new paid family and medical leave program.

If the American Families Plan moves forward and paid leave is offered to all Americans, there will be a unique opportunity to get this critical program right from the start. To ensure that paid leave is equitable and effective, now is the time to talk about policy design and technical implementation.

Nava has worked with some of the largest federal agencies and state benefits programs, from modernizing legacy systems to rolling out new digital services driven by legislation. We know from experience that a new paid leave program can work for the people who need it the most — it doesn’t have to be yet another brittle government service. By taking a human-centered approach and building the service with modular software components, enrolling in paid leave can be a simple and accessible experience for everyone.

As policymakers debate the details of a national paid leave law, and government employees think about how they would implement the program, here are two things we’ve learned while building similar programs: Plan for a program that will evolve over time and make technology decisions with equity at the center.

Plan for programs to evolve

As agencies plan to implement a new program they’ll likely discover unexpected needs along the way. They’ll learn about unique use cases from all different kinds of people who interact with the service — from workers and employers to staff administering the program. Policy, operations, and technology should be flexible enough to respond to those emerging needs.

Invest in and empower a digital service team

To build a responsive and nimble program, invest in a digital service team that understands the value of modular, well-crafted software that uses scalable cloud infrastructure. They will incorporate principles you can refer to often, like open source, accessibility, and reusability. Government agencies, not vendors, should own their systems, which is why investing in in-house technical talent is critical to successful service delivery. State digital services teams like Massachusetts Digital Service, Colorado Digital Service, the State of New Jersey’s Office of Innovation, California’s Office of Digital Innovation, and more are already paving the way.

Scale adoption and functionality as you learn

Get core components of the service running in production, then scale adoption and functionality as you learn. Nava’s approach to addressing large-scale digital service challenges like paid leave is to build and release small, modular software components that are loosely coupled by well-defined APIs. Develop those components with real requirements and real implementation needs, planning to enhance them over time as you get feedback from people using the service. This enables agencies to quickly deliver services that help people now, while also building a flexible foundation that supports long-term technical evolution in response to changing needs.

Strengthen feedback between policy and implementation

Another way to build a responsive program is to pair technical teams with the policy and business operations teams. In a new program, there is substantial value in interdependent technology, policy, and operational decision-making. Technologists and policy teams can research, develop, and test small parts of the service together. By doing so, they can make data-driven policy and operational decisions that meet user needs, are technically feasible, and ensure the technology is compliant to achieve the program’s goals. For example, in Massachusetts we learned through usability testing that people wanted to apply for parental leave before their baby was born or adopted. Designers and engineers worked with the policy team to identify a compliant solution that would allow parents to apply in advance without adding significant technical or administrative scope. In doing so, parents can apply for parental leave before their baby arrives.

Make equitable tech decisions

As stated in President Biden’s plan, paid leave can reduce racial disparities in wage loss between workers of color and white workers, and increase women’s participation in the labor force. There’s an opportunity to design with the people who need this service the most, learn about what might prevent them from accessing it, and make it as easy as possible for them to enroll.

Build with marginalized communities

Take a human-centered approach by talking to all user groups — workers, employers, healthcare providers, and the civil servants who will need to maintain and operate the service. Engaging with communities throughout the development process helps identify potential pitfalls before the service is rolled out. Talk to people from marginalized groups, including women of color who have been historically stigmatized for accessing public benefit programs. What you learn could reveal opportunities for content and product strategy. These conversations can also help you leverage influential voices who can add a layer of credibility when you’re rolling out the program. When recruiting for user research (research that aims to understand behaviors, needs, and motivations of people engaging with the service), use a demographic screener to ensure you’re speaking with a diverse cohort and uplifting their voices. At the close of every research session, compare the recruitment diversity to the overall makeup of the region, and use that to signal where to focus next. For example, if in your early research you spoke to a lot of people with bachelor degrees, prioritize new research with people who have an associates degree or a high school diploma.

Words matter; prioritize content strategy

People who apply for paid leave are often under stress, whether they’re expecting a baby or dealing with a health crisis. Content strategy — sending the right message to the right person at the right time — can make or break the experience of applying for paid leave. For example, use plain language to help a broad range of people understand their rights and responsibilities. Read more about Nava’s approach content strategy and user onboarding.

Measure progress towards program outcomes

Develop a strong monitoring, data analytics, and evaluation plan from the get-go. Plan to measure progress towards program outcomes, leveraging data from the technology you are building. Don’t wait for your vendor to send you data a few times a year. Set up a dashboard so you can see how people are interacting with your service in real time, and do research with your users throughout implementation. Use that information to make improvements that meet participant and program administration needs. Continue to measure their impact and improve the service over time in iterative cycles to achieve your programmatic goals.

The United States is the only industrialized country in the world without a national paid leave program. If the American Family Plan is enacted as proposed, it will mark a huge step forward for the country, at a time when people are in dire need of support. It is possible and within reach to build a simple, effective, and accessible program from the ground up. If done right, we’re hopeful that a national paid family and medical leave program will lay strong foundations for a more resilient and equitable safety net that’s fit for the digital age.

Special thanks to Tamar Fox, Allison Johnson, Madison Loew, Shaun Mosley, Lauren Peterson, and Makaela Stephens for their contributions to this piece.

Written by

Martelle Esposito

Partnerships and Evaluation Lead

Martelle Esposito is a partnerships and evaluation lead at Nava. Before joining Nava, Martelle managed a WIC services innovation lab at Johns Hopkins University and worked on public policy development and program implementation at non-profits.

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