A government IT 'public benefit corporation' works to benefit the public
Steve Kelman checks in with Nava on the efforts to balance profitable business and civic-minded federal contracting.
Back in late 2017 I published a post, as part of a series about small non-traditional IT contractors, about a small company called Nava, and its founder, Rohan Bhobe. Bhobe had come out of the Silicon Valley and first got involved with the government as part of the Healthcare.gov rescue in 2013. The company was started in 2015.
Nava is organized as a something called a “public benefit corporation,” which is a legally recognized corporate form with a dual mission to be an economically healthy company and also pursue a “social mission written into the founding charter that has as much weight as a corporation’s fiduciary responsibility to its shareholders.”
As the company writes, “Being a public benefit corporation isn’t too different on the surface from being an average corporation. We’re a profitable company and give generous options regardless of role so that everyone can have equity in Nava. Past, present, and future employees are the shareholders of Nava. As shareholders, we all have a voice in Nava’s future. If, somehow, Nava were to ever stray from our focus on improving government services, Nava’s shareholders — even if the shareholders were no longer at the company — would have a legal path to hold Nava accountable for its stated mission.”
As a public benefit corporation, Nava’s public mission is to help government “design, build, launch and operate digital services that work really well for people.” This means two strategic goals for all its work: First, that “service experiences should be simple, fast, and accessible to everyone.” Second that their products or services should produce “outcomes that are effective for their beneficiary population.”
Bhobe says, “It’s not just like ’Hey, we're a vendor that has X, Y, Z services. Let's just sell more of X, Y, Z services.’ We have a different north star or way of being organized that flows into different types of decisions we make. For example, if we're thinking about should we bid on X opportunity, we're thinking about that from the perspective of does this represent the type of transformation effort that we are interested in driving?” Concretely, they will no-bid work that is not oriented towards those two goals.
Nava just published its third annual public benefit report and sent it to me. It discusses four projects they are working on – for reasons of space, I will discuss two (together these account for somewhat over 10% of the company’s business). Both of these projects center around simplifying an existing government service for users.
One of these projects is at the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Nava’s first customer. CMS had seven public-facing websites, each with a different look and feel, that often required users to navigate from one to another to get their questions answered, such as pricing for prescriptions, how to schedule a doctor’s appointment, or making a copay. The seven sites have now been consolidated into one, and Nava is working incrementally to create a single Medicare experience on the site. An important milestone is to have built an API to allow data formerly on the different sites to talk with each other.
They also designed and launched a new message center that allows CMS to target specific messages to individual beneficiaries. “When major events—global (say, a pandemic) or personal (emergency surgery)—happen, CMS can act quickly and ensure their beneficiaries have the information they need, when they need it. Global messages can be shared via prominent banners across all Medicare pages. And personal messages can be sent directly to beneficiaries.”
The Medicare website redesign work is complex, with several different teams with different skills working on it. Nava was a sub to another non-traditional contractor I’ve written about, with the odd name of Oddball. (In my blog at the time, I invited readers to consider the fact there was a government contractor with that name rather than, say, ABC Systems.)
Another project discussed in the Nava report is an effort at the Department of Veterans Affairs , now live in parts of the country, to allow appeals of benefit determination decisions to occur remotely online, rather than requiring the veteran to make a trip to a VA location. Bhobe notes that moving these hearings online was part of the VA’s roadmap before the pandemic for where to take the process. Then, “when COVID happened and they had to suspend all in-person hearings, within one week, Nava generated a video conferencing link using a new case flow and scheduling system Nava had recently completed, and began piloting it among VA internal users. In October 2020 the VA made it possible for those interested to schedule their hearings virtually.”
Not surprisingly, the public benefit report Nava produced discusses only successes. We all know how many IT projects fail, and it is appropriate to ask whether Nava is able to attain an above-average success rate compared with traditional vendors. Nava leaders would say they differ from many traditional vendors in their genuine embrace of agile software development (compared to agile in name only) which mitigates problems (to use Bhobe’s language) of “misalignment and surprise on scope/timeline/resources by making sure that you're continuously shipping working software every day, you're talking to users often, and you're testing your hypothesis and assumptions.”
Bhobe also cites the organization’s strong cultural commitment to delivering results. But beyond that he gave me no secret sauce for project success.
Nava has grown from 60 employees when I wrote about them at the end of 2017 to roughly 200 employees today – not bad progress for a new player. They have graduated from being a micro-business to a small business.
I can imagine two kinds of objections to this upbeat story about Nava from skeptics, perhaps in industry. They remind me of objections that two career DOD officials were famous for making to shoot down any reform proposal. One, a longtime contracting official, would say, “we’re already doing it.” The other, in the general counsel’s office, would say, “it’s illegal.” So some might argue that traditional government contractors already behave like Nava, while others might say that in a fight-for-survival marketplace, such behavior is the road to bankruptcy.
I don’t want to weigh in on a discussion of the extent to which the way Nava is behaving is either common or impossible among traditional IT vendors. But I suspect that few traditional contractors would no-bid on work just because it didn’t aim to simplify the customer’s experience, or that they would make an independent judgment about whether the work improves the lives of beneficiaries, rather than just assuming that if the government was bidding the work at all, it must have decided it did good. I invite blog readers in industry and government to ask themselves whether Nava provides any lessons for us.
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