Designing government programs that last

How vendors can work with government partners to build internal capacity, empowering agencies to hone and maintain systems in the future.

A young Black man and a young white man work together on a flowchart at a whiteboard.

Imagine State X—a fictitious U.S. state that is looking to modernize the technological underpinnings of its public services. To help revamp its technology, State X chooses a vendor. That vendor parachutes in for the length of their contract, builds new systems, then leaves State X to grapple with the burden of maintaining them. As a result, State X’s public servants must work overtime to fill the vendor’s void, risking poor service delivery for those who benefit from public services. 

Let’s rewind. Imagine State X chooses a different vendor, one that works extensively to build internal capacity for agencies to continue honing and maintaining these systems. This vendor recognizes that they can also benefit from building capacity with their government partners. Over the course of the contract term, this vendor not only delivers new technology, but also partners with State X on how to own their new processes and systems for years to come.

This is what it means to help build internal government capacity, and it’s of the utmost importance for vendors and government agencies that partner on technology projects.

At Nava, we believe that it's a vendor's responsibility to ensure the longevity of the services they work on. We approach our projects knowing that eventually our contract will end, so we need to help set our partners up for long-term success. We also recognize the insight and expertise that agency staff bring to a project and aim to amplify their contributions to better serve our government partners. 

It’s important to note that government agencies are already modernizing and building internal capacity without outside vendors. However, partnering with a vendor’s subject matter experts can help accelerate and scale capacity building. 

When we partnered with a state government to support the launch of their new Paid Family Medical Leave (PFML) program, we piloted an effort with their communications and operations teams to help build internal research and design capacity. This pilot was symbiotic—state agency staff benefited because they’re now more equipped to own the design aspects of the PFML program, while Nava benefited from having access to government subject matter experts who shaped a stronger and more human-centered service.

Using our experience collaborating with agency staff, this Toolkit will serve as a guide for vendors and government agencies who wish to take on similar work.

This Toolkit can help you:

  • Learn about ways that vendors can work with their government partners to intentionally build internal capacity to promote the longevity and success of government services. 
  • Understand the steps to building internal government capacity on your own teams.  

How do you know if it’s right to support government partners’ capacity-building?

Vendors should always be building internal government capacity through leading by example and providing ample documentation on new systems and processes. However, the type of capacity building we describe in this Toolkit goes a step further—it entails pairing with government partners on a regular basis until they’re ready to own their processes. 

Certain conditions must fall into place to make this kind of work possible. Evolving the way one works is no small feat, so it’s crucial that the government agency’s employees have the time and capacity to take on an additional workload. Many agencies are working hard under limited time and budget constraints, so it’s understandable that this style of working with vendors may feel out of reach. In these situations, a government agency might choose to build capacity on their own.

However, if a government agency and a vendor choose to partner on capacity building, it’s crucial to get buy-in from both parties. The agency’s leadership must also be on board with helping its staff take on new ways of working. For vendors, it’s useful to identify members of your team who have mentorship experience and then pair them with agency staff. 

All of these pieces fell into place with our government partner, so we were in a good position to help them grow their skills. The state was already interested in growing their capabilities and had been exploring ways to leverage user research and data analytics strategy in-house. With support from their leadership, it was easy to identify how to transfer ownership of the design process. 

Start with a conversation (or two) to define goals

Before jumping into hands-on work, it’s important to sit down with your government partner and map out what collaboration will look like. Asking about your partners’ short- and long-term goals and motivations can help shape your project plan. For example, we learned that agency staff wanted to expand their in-house capabilities in user research and data analytics. This set the stage to decide which of our project teams to embed agency staff on and by which metrics we’d measure success.  

Solidify logistics together

These early conversations should also cover logistics. Which agency leader will be your point person? Which agency staff will you work with and how? How many hours per week will each party dedicate to internal capacity building? In our case, an agency leader helped identify 3-4 claims examiners that he believed had the capacity to work with us and the interest in learning how to develop repeatable research processes in-house. 

It’s important for vendors and government agencies to decide on a time commitment together and to stick to this commitment. Based on the agency’s projects and goals, we both felt that eight hours per week was enough time for agency staff to focus on this while still having time for their existing duties. Given the immersive nature of this type of work, we recommend that agency staff dedicate no less than this amount of time per week to capacity building.

Define expectations and a timeline

After gaining an understanding of your client’s goals and staff resources available, sketch out a project plan with agency staff that defines a timeline and expectations. We recommend that agency staff be embedded on your scrum team or delivery team, and that this should be reflected in the project plan. 

In our case, we decided that agency staff would shadow our scrum team as we performed data analysis, conducted interviews, and synthesized insights. Our shared goal was that agency staff would eventually take on these duties long term. 

We had two work initiatives planned where it would make sense to embed agency staff. Each of these initiatives was scoped to last around three months, giving ample time to support their growth. Then, we baked expectations into our project plan by defining that building internal capacity—having agency staff achieve specific goals—was part of being “done” with each initiative.   

For vendors, it’s helpful to start small. Rather than committing your whole organization to building government capacity, choose one initiative or team that will partner with agency staff. Once you’ve transitioned that feature or process over to agency staff, more of your vendor’s teams can begin to pursue this type of work. 

Embedding agency staff on vendor teams to promote holistic learning 

Once you move from planning onto performing actual work, we recommend a phased approach to ease agency staff into their new duties. We also learned from this pilot that agency staff may not be comfortable with an agile workflow, so it’s helpful to begin by orienting them to your ways of working. Next, agency staff can shadow you as you work, then they can try the work on their own with your feedback and guidance, and finally, they can fully transition into performing the new duties without you. We used the timelines we had created for each initiative to identify how long to spend on each step in the process.

1. Shadowing

Begin by having agency staff shadow you in your meetings and as you perform work duties. This will give them exposure to your daily operations. During the shadowing phase, it may be helpful to connect with agency staff prior to each recurring meeting to give them context and explain the purpose of the meeting and your role in it. Make sure to introduce the agency staff to regular meeting attendees and explain the goal of building capacity to your team. You can then debrief after the meeting to provide more context and answer their questions.

It’s also important to include agency staff in ad-hoc meetings. Schedule regular touchpoints with each agency staff member to connect the dots and explain your approach to the work, particularly around how you make decisions and what you do when you run into issues. 

In our case, agency staff sat in on all our regular meetings. This included check-ins with collaborators and key stakeholders, meetings to review and get approval on work, and design team meetings where we'd provide each other with feedback on design deliverables. This allowed the agency staff to see how we planned work, collaborated with each other and other teams, worked within a two-week sprint, and dealt with issues. We also had the agency staff shadow us as we performed specific tasks, like conducting user research interviews and analyzing data.

2. Performing tasks with feedback

After agency staff get an idea of your processes and workflows, help them perform tasks and provide feedback on their work. It's important to define tasks clearly—make sure the agency staff member understands what "done" looks like for the task they're assigned to. If you can, provide previous examples they can look to. 

We've found that pairing is an effective way to build agency staff’s experience. In a remote setting, the staff member can share their screen and "drive" the work while the vendor provides support. Consider setting up a regular pairing time with each staff member. For example, we saw an opportunity to transfer the data analysis of a survey to an agency staff member. After shadowing our process, the staff member took the reins to analyze the feedback and summarize trends for the agency’s leadership team. By doing this together on a call, we could provide immediate feedback. Once the staff member felt comfortable doing this work, they would do it independently and send it to us async for review.

Providing templates and documenting best practices is another way to support agency staff members as they develop their skills. Because our partner agency was interested in building up their ability to plan and conduct user research, we created an interactive interview guide template that taught agency staff the components of interviewing. They then drafted their own interview guide for the specific work initiative based on the template, we provided feedback, and together we iterated on it. Then, once they'd observed a few user research interviews, they conducted the interviews while we took notes. This allowed us to support in-session when needed.

3. Transitioning to fully performing tasks

At this point, you should help agency staff transition to performing tasks on their own. You should still be available during this phase to answer questions they might have, but for the most part, agency staff should be ready to take on these new duties. Note that you can transition tasks over time—try handing off a subset of tasks that seem straightforward while you continue to help build capacity in other areas.

With our partner agency, we identified that the data analysis work was ready to hand off while we were still completing our user research initiative because the agency already had strong analytical skills in-house. The agency staff member working on the data analysis project began to identify trends, run meetings, and provide leadership updates without much feedback from us. 

4. Set up government partners for success with documentation

One of the most important aspects of building internal capacity is ensuring that your government partners can own the processes you helped establish long after the contract term ends. We closed out one of our research engagements with clear documentation of the end-to-end research process that current and future agency staff can reference. Our team provided them with templates and a guide on how to do user research, helping to establish a repeatable research process for the in-house team. By providing clear documentation, it will be easier for agency staff to follow, iterate, and improve upon our processes. 

It’s also helpful to work with agency leadership to collaboratively define next steps they can take to support this work. For example, we provided our partner agency with example job descriptions for future constituent satisfaction roles. We also created a lightweight skills checklist to help gauge when agency staff are ready to take on new work. By providing documentation on next steps, the agency now has a template for how to develop their internal capabilities, ensuring a long legacy of data-driven, human-centered work processes. 

5. Learn from your government partners

Beyond developing ways to set the agency up for success, one of our greatest lessons learned was that agency staff had as much to teach us as we did them. As vendors, we felt that breaking down the silos between government business operations and the technology they use strengthened our work. Our government partners brought years of hands-on experience working with claims, and that expertise contributed new perspectives to our research approach and analyses. When it came time to recommend changes based on our research and data analysis, agency staff provided unique and creative ideas for what would work. 

Written by

Kira Leadholm

Editorial Manager

Kira Leadholm is the Editorial Manager at Nava. Before working at Nava, she held various editorial roles and worked as a reporter at outlets including the Better Government Association, SF Weekly, and the Chicago Reader.

Makaela Stephens

Senior Designer/Researcher

Makaela Stephens is a Senior Designer/Researcher at Nava. Previously, Makaela worked with California, New York City, and civic non-profits to design and deliver critical services that benefit the public.

Lisa Spitz

Senior Designer and Researcher, Program Lead

Lisa Spitz is a senior designer/researcher and program lead at Nava. Lisa has led teams and consulted on UX design for clients ranging from corporate to non-profit and worked as an educator.

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