What do we mean when we talk about Product Management in Government?

Over the last few months Ross Ferguson at GDS, Scott Colfer at MoJ and I have all talked about Product Management, and whether we are Product Owner, Product Managers or Value Managers. For me each of those titles can work, but what we are called is less important than what we do.

When talking to Product Managers from the Private sector we always have interesting conversations about the difference in their roles and the roles we have within the Public Sector, and I’m often asked is what we do really that different? To which my answer is yes, I think it is.

Now before I go on to answer why I think there is a big difference, let me say I don’t think either is 'right' or 'better' than the other, and also a lot of this us generalised, so this isn’t intended as a “Private sector only works in this way or public sector only works in this way” as I know it’s not true.

The key value a Product Manager brings to their business, to their team and to their users is the same. They are the person who prioritises what needs doing, makes sure the right thing is delivered and sets the direction for their team. Whether in the Private or Public sector the core role is the same. But it’s the environment we work in, who we work with and how we interact with and understand our users that is different. And at its heart it is, like everything should be, all about the users.

In the private sector the role of the Product Manager or Owner is often intrinsically linked to marketing. They need to understand the market they’re trying to land their product in, and develop a product that their users will (ideally) pay for. It’s all about developing something someone wants.

Within Government we are developing products people need. Quite often they don’t want them, no one want’s to be on benefits or to pay their taxes, and the fact we’re designing for need vs. want changes the approach we have to take when designing our Products and Services.

But the fact is we aren’t trying to grow our market share, or increase our profits, we’re trying to make people lives better, to deliver policy change, to improve things for society, and we’re doing it with public funding so we have to carefully way up the value of every choice we make.

This can take much longer, it can be much more complicated, but we’re working on things that really matter, that can change lives. We still strive to deliver things quickly, to have that minimum viable product that we can iterate and grow, but we also have to consider the full service we offer our users. It’s not just delivering a digital service but also those paper forms we ask people to fill out, the contact centre that supports our users, our operational colleagues and what they need, how we can make their lives better.

All of this means user centric design is critical in our roles, we have to understand the behaviours of our users, why they need our products, what is going on in their lives that means they need to use our services, and how we can better support them. We’re interacting with vulnerable people and trying to be that bridge between political intent and designing products that will deliver what people need.

As Product Managers in the public sector we aren’t just developing ‘new things’, we’re having to understand what’s gone before, to phase out or replace older services and design something better and new at the same time. We still need to understand the market place, but we’re doing it to look for opportunities to learn from each other, to ensure we’re not existing public money designing something someone else has already developed.

In the private sector you might be working in competition with other companies, to beat them to the market, to deliver something better than your competitor; in the public sector we’re working in collaboration, we’re designing and developing things together, looking for opportunities to share and co-create across government, to deliver something better together.

We want people who care, who collaborate, who want to iterate and innovate, who are willing to spend the time and effort to make sure they are solving the right problem in the right way for our users.

In the public sector we expect you to know your users needs inside out and to strive to do better for them. But it’s an exciting challenge, and there’s never been a better time to join us, and while you do your best to support our users, we will do our very best to support you.