For vendors building digital tools for government services, policy is often considered a separate process siloed from the work of implementation. But in practice, successfully building services depends on a deep understanding of policy. In turn, well-crafted policy depends on a deep understanding of implementation.
That’s why we advocate for an approach that bridges the gap between the policymakers who define programs and the development teams who implement them. Engineers need to stay educated about policy and how technical decisions may have downstream impacts on the people using their programs. And policymakers should be given insight into how the legislation and regulations they are writing can impact this implementation, too. Failure to do so risks creating systems that make policy more complicated and digital tools that don’t meet user needs.
At Nava, we incorporate policy context and understanding into every part of our development process. Our cross-functional development teams include embedded policy strategists who participate as full team members and work closely with their design, research, and engineering peers. We’ve learned that this helps us translate both federal and state policy requirements into the services we’re building. This allows us to achieve program outcomes that are continually responsive to inevitable policy changes. For our government partners, it helps ensure that services and programs truly meet user needs.
We’re sharing actionable steps for how vendors can and should embed policy understanding into their development process. While much of this will focus on the implementation phase of building a new product, we see value in vendors engaging in every step of the policymaking process. There’s also value in government administrators proactively engaging with technology vendors throughout the entire process of writing and implementing legislation. Every stage of the cycle of policymaking is an opportunity for this collaboration to have an impact that will ultimately serve the people a government program intends to benefit.
The cycle of policymaking
At each phase of policy development and implementation, decisions are being made that impact program simplicity, effectiveness, and accessibility. Vendors and policymakers should engage with each other at different steps of the process to ethically inform decision-making and make progress towards a program’s mission. The cycle of policymaking is detailed below.
Before a policy becomes a law
Before a policy goes into effect, it must first become a law. It’s a lengthy process where legislators are introducing bills, advocates are organizing, writing, and speaking for or against the law, and lobbyists are taking meetings and doing what they can to push a bill into passing or not passing and amending it to meet their needs. Some bills don’t make it to a vote, and others that do fail. But when a bill does pass and become a law, the policy implementation cycle begins.
Nava participates in this phase of lawmaking. We share our approach, experiences, and outcomes by publishing case studies, project reports, and hosting conference presentations. Our hope is that our experience implementing programs can help educate legislators and other advocates to make considerations or avoid pitfalls when it comes to execution, ultimately informing how legislation is written.
When the American Families Act – a bill for a national Paid Family and Medical Leave program – was introduced as part of President Biden’s Build Back Better bill in 2021, Nava published an article detailing our recommendations. The guidance extended from our work helping to build Massachusetts’ first Paid Family and Medical Leave program. Using our experience, we provided advice to research real users in order to build for their needs, prioritizing plain language content, and more. Articles like this serve as a form of advocacy from vendors by helping policymakers consider technical implementation when thinking about and putting forth legislation.
As rules and regulations are being written
After a law is passed, executive agency staff provide more detailed information about how to put the law into action. At this stage, the specifics of how a policy will get implemented and other regulations are still being proposed and written. Policymakers will draft regulations and ask for interested parties, such as vendors and advocacy groups, to weigh in – this process is called public comment. Eventually, regulations are finalized after considering and making changes based on these public comments.
Vendors can weigh in during the public comment process by submitting their analysis on how regulations could impact implementation and whether they would facilitate or hinder making progress towards a program’s intended mission. Vendors can also engage in more informal conversations during the drafting phase with policymakers to offer implementation perspectives. Meanwhile, government administrators can and should should proactively engage technology vendors during this stage in the policy cycle to understand the downstream effects of their decisions.
For example, when Massachusetts was rolling out their new paid family and medical leave (PFML) program, their drafted policy required weekly wage recertification. That means almost all beneficiaries would be required to file official documentation of the wages they earned every week to calculate their PFML benefits. Because some beneficiaries would file for intermittent leave, or taking leave in separate blocks of time, the program required that these beneficiaries certify their wages weekly to make sure their payment was up to date. But the drafted policy required all beneficiaries follow this weekly recertification, even those that weren’t taking intermittent leave.
On the surface, this seemed like a simple regulatory policy – just make all beneficiaries file the same paperwork. But in reality, the requirement added complexity across the board. It meant the program’s customer service staff needed to devote more time to process all of these recertifications. It meant that the teams building the program’s tools needed to widen the number and scope of features necessary to process all of those claims. Most importantly, it meant additional stresses on beneficiaries themselves who didn't actually need to continually recertify their wages because their weekly benefit amount never changed. For those filing claims during tough life situations – say they or a family member are injured or bedridden, or they are dealing with the stresses of a new baby in the family – this recertification requirement quickly becomes burdensome.
Given all of this, we suggested that the state simplify this policy unless the beneficiary was actually applying for intermittent leave, a suggestion ultimately reflected in finalized regulations. While policy decisions are ultimately up to government agencies, all would benefit if vendors and policymakers worked more closely together during this phase of the lawmaking process.
As laws and regulations are operationalized
At this stage, laws and regulations have been established. It’s now up to agencies to interpret them and make operational decisions, including administration governance, staff, priorities, roadmaps and implementation guidance. These decisions are then shared with those who are tasked with implementing the program, such as government technical offices as well as technology vendors. This guidances can come in the form of formal standard operating procedures, training materials, and protocols. During this stage, vendors can make recommendations to their government partners about how different operational decisions will impact service design, product development, and the experience of end users.
For example, the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) put out a request for comment and listening sessions on how best to approach modernizing the technology for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). Nava responded to the request for comment with a series of recommendations, including an API standard to connect disparate data systems preventing WIC agencies from bringing new features into their programs. We also participated in a listening session and request for information with FNS on this topic.
As a program is being implemented
Now it’s time for a service to actually be built or updated based on new laws, regulations, and operational decisions. During this stage, government agencies are procuring vendors and working alongside them to design and develop services. Staff are also hired and trained, and programs are launched and iterated on.
For technology vendors, this is our core work. We are designing services and developing products that meet our users' needs within the constraints of the law, regulations, and operations. At this stage, vendors also might contribute their perspectives on new versions of laws, rules, regulations, and making operational decisions for a program due to the iterative nature of program implementation.
Effectively translating policies into tangible services that achieve program goals, serve administrative staff and target beneficiary needs requires understanding of policy, program dynamics, and technology development processes. That’s why we recommend integrating program strategists, or specific experts who can function as policy translators between the government policy staff and technology vendor staff into every step of the technical implementation of a program. That includes:
Analyze policy context and share knowledge: Technical staff must understand the broader program and policy intent before building a product. This lowers the risk of inadvertently making decisions that could have unforeseen impacts on another.
Map policy provisions across the service blueprint: This is a crucial way to help the team translate policy into design and development requirements and acceptance criteria. It involves identifying areas where policy and operational decision-making has been made and where it is needed from the government partner, including decisions that need to be answered early in the process versus what should be interpreted via user research.
Set up direct communications channels between government agencies and the vendor’s policy staff: This establishes point-people from both the agency and the vendor to communicate regularly and troubleshoot questions at the intersection of policy decision-making and technology implementation.
Co-create business logic with technical and policy staff: For each user story, more detailed policy and operational requirements will be defined and broken down into engineering tasks with clear definitions of done. This ensures that we’re confident we have been implemented in line with policy needs.
After a policy’s program is launched
After teams have built and deployed a product, either as a soft launch or a full launch, it’s important to continue evaluating the program’s effectiveness. Metrics such as time reduction on the user’s end, call center volume, or positive or negative press are just a few examples of indicators that can be measured to determine if we are implementing the program in the intended way.
At this stage, vendors should advocate for the collection of this data, reviewing product metrics within the context of desired program outcomes and against established benchmarks and expectations. Stakeholders are then able to make ongoing data-driven policy and operational decisions to identify where further policy and technology changes are needed to achieve policy goals. Vendors can also use the data collected to advocate for updates throughout the policy implementation cycle and for future legislation.
For example, Nava partnered with the state of California to rapidly build a web application for people to confirm their status using a form for unemployment benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic. After the initial launch of the form, we worked with the state on a communications plan to reach the beneficiaries who had not yet completed the form using a combination of email notifications, SMS messages, and messages within the unemployment portal. We tracked this communications plan’s effectiveness and discovered that open rates for the messages sent within the unemployment portal were only 18 percent.
So, we adjusted our communications plan to address this: we relied more on SMS messages, increased the frequency of messages in all channels, and simplified the messaging to be more direct and urgent. Our improved communication strategy resulted in reaching an additional 14 percent of beneficiaries in the final three weeks. Tracking these open rates helped us improve the agency’s communications plan, which in turn helped more beneficiaries complete the form.
Through every step of the policymaking process, vendors and policymakers should work closely together to consider how policy and implementation inextricably impact each other and the success of a program. At Nava, we advocate for continual, embedded policy expertise from before a law is passed to after a policy’s program is released.
Partnerships and Evaluation Lead
Senior Product Manager