In the last decade, technology companies — primarily, a small handful of big companies — have driven profound shifts in our society. They’ve reshaped the nature of work, how we consume news and information, our forums for public discourse, and culture itself. This rapid accumulation of power, influence, and data has provoked legitimate scrutiny of tech companies as society grapples with the full extent, depth, and speed of digital change. Meanwhile, government technology hasn’t been able to keep up with the acceleration of technological progress (Government technology hasn’t kept pace with consumer and enterprise technology for a variety of reasons, many of which Jennifer Pahlka outlines in “Which side are you on, vendors?”. And the public’s trust in government to solve problems has eroded to a historic low. While many factors have contributed to this decline, government websites that close at 5 p.m. for maintenance or are down before an enrollment deadline certainly don’t increase trust.

A graph from Gallup showing Americans' decline in trust in the federal government from 1997 to 2019.According to Gallup, Americans’ trust in the federal government’s ability to handle both domestic and international problems has sunk to the lowest points in more than two decades.

Deep distrust between government and its people is dangerous for democracy. At Nava, we see our work at the intersection of technology and government as an incredible opportunity to help mend the brittle and broken relationships between people and public institutions. We chose to be a public benefit corporation because we believe that companies have a social responsibility to the people affected by their work, and to the broader public. For companies like ours — that are paid with taxpayer dollars, whose work affects millions of lives — social responsibility should be the norm, not the exception.

We imagine a world where public services are trusted, efficient, and easy to use, and policy is driven by user needs. We imagine a world where companies that build and support systems for governments are held accountable, and where technology opens doors instead of building barriers. Advancing our vision over the long-term requires a structural and holistic approach — starting with the often invisible foundations deep within agencies, all the way up to services that people can see and touch. And we choose our work carefully to make that vision real.

Sharpening our focus

Our criteria for choosing projects has always been driven by the public benefit goals expressed in our founding charter, but through our experiences, we have sharpened our focus. Nava was formed with a mission to improve the simplicity, effectiveness, and accessibility of government services. As policy continues to be implemented through technology, we’ve clarified our founding mission to focus specifically on serving vulnerable populations — those individuals or families whose well-being is under threat from institutional, economic, societal, or environmental pressures. It’s here that the stakes are often highest, where trust is either created or destroyed en masse—and not just for the people these programs are designed to serve. The impact of broken trust resonates across the broader country.

We work on projects that support the most vulnerable among us, such as people experiencing homelessness, Veterans, and people applying for public benefits. We say no to projects that don’t advance our mission to increase the simplicity, effectiveness, and accessibility of services for these populations. For example, we would bid on a project to work with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to streamline the immigration process. Reducing long waiting periods and increasing transparency into the status of applications helps improve a crucial service that immigrants depend on. We wouldn’t work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement because their recent actions are actively harming those we are aiming to serve.

An illustration of two people working together to map a pile of notecards.Illustration by Vidhya Nagarajan.

To give you a sense of our process, our business development team uses explicit criteria to evaluate new opportunities. As we evaluate new opportunities, we think about how our work could be used after the contract ends, including the long term consequences of the tools we build. At our weekly staff meeting, we talk about what we’ve said yes to, what we’ve said no to, and why. And we say no more often than we say yes — this year we evaluated hundreds of projects, but chose to bid on less than 20. Having a clear mission makes it easy for us to turn down work that, at best, temporarily distracts us and, at worst, undermines our progress or hurts the people we are aiming to serve.

In the years to come, we’ll be doubling down on our mission because the consequences of falling short are too high. Failing to mend the damaged relationship between government and its people puts our democracy in a very dangerous place. Thankfully, along our journey so far, we’ve found dedicated civil servants with whom we work through complicated policy, process, and legacy technology challenges. The work that we do together, at the intersection of technology and government, is impacting millions of lives, and it’s just beginning.

Special thanks to Jenna Aronow, Lane Becker, Jessi Bull, Daniella DeVera, Sara Distin, Brian Hanley, Cyd Harrell, Jacob Harris, Sophie Haskins, Sha Hwang, Jodi Leo, Aaron Ogle, Rebecca Piazza, and Makaela Stephens for their invaluable feedback on this post.