Where does Product Management sit in Government? Ponderings on 'ownership' & organisational design.

The role of Product Management, where it sits and what’s it’s accountable for its always an interesting conversation.

I’ve blogged previously about what I see as the differences between the role of Product Managements in the Public and Private sector, meeting user needs and the complexity of designing for 'needs rather than wants’.

But the conversation about where we should actually 'sit' in the organisation is a different topic.

In the Private sector Product Managers and Owners tend to sit/come from within the Marketing department. They work with the customer service team, and with the digital development teams, but they’re there to ensure the teams develop things customers want, spotting gaps in the market and making sure their products are marketable and able to create revenue for their business. As such the Product Manager is the bridge between the Marketing department and the digital teams, and where they 'fit' is more obvious.

Within the Public Sector we aren’t focused on the market in the same way. While as Product Managers we need to be aware of 'our market' it’s to make sure we’re not wasting tax payers money by building something no one needs, or that someone else has already developed/is developing.

Recently the role of the Product Manager in government has been brought into the Digital, Data and Technology profession. In most of the departments that is where we now sit, and that makes sense in a lot of ways. We work day to day with the digital development teams to make sure we’re building the right things in the right ways for the right reasons. We are often the conscience of the team, asking 'why' we’re developing something, seeking to understand the users needs, business needs, architecture solutions, software solutions etc. Listening to our teams as they recommend the best way to fix whatever problem we are trying to address.

But not all Product Managers in government currently sit within digital, some still sit in Operations, with conversations being had about whether that is a better fit for us?Similarly there is a conversation to be had about whether we should sit within Policy or Strategy. All good conversations.

For me I don’t think Operations is the right space for us, although I understand the argument. In the private sector Product Managers tend not to be 'owned’ by the digital department so that they can remain independent of the solution and focused on delivering the thing customers want. Principles I agree with. As such the logic in some departments is that the things we as Products Managers are developing are often used by both citizens and our front end staff within Operations; and the things we develop are often first suggested by our operational counterparts; therfore in order to keep our Product Manager independent of the solution being developed I can see why in some departments the role of the Product Manager sits there.

But as we move into the future more and more of our Products and Services will become digital by default, with face to face and telephony channels becoming the minority; equally more of our back end decisions will be automated allowing our agents to focus on more complex tasks or decisions. As such, while we Product Managers can’t lose sight of the Operational needs of our businesses, I don’t think we have to sit there in order to focus on meeting user need and delivering value for taxpayers.

I think the view point that Product Managers should sit within Policy/Strategy is one that possibly has more value. While we Product Managers don’t have to understand the external market in the same way our Private sector peers do, we do have to have a good understanding of the political landscape we are developing and delivering Products and services in. We have to be able to understand and sometimes challenge the policy intent. We have to work arm in arm with our policy and strategy colleagues to make sure that our products meet both the user needs and the policy intent, and equally that the policy intent is deliverable for our users. We have to have a strategic view of how our products and services fit together, to be able to identify gaps, and to be able to ensure our products and service are future proofed and adaptable. Personally I think this is where we could do better, and I know about of thinking is happening in arenas like One Team Gov #reimaginingthepublicsector etc. Looking at how we pull policy and digital closer together. Having Product Managers who are part of policy/ strategy is one possible solution.

Equally I think it’s important to remember that in the private sector digital teams are often just delivering a solution, so having the Product Manager sit outside of that space makes sense, but in the public sector the cultural changes led by GDS mean we’re no longer working that way, all our multidisciplinary teams are designed to develop things that meet user needs. At the moment it’s critical the Product Manager not be on the outside of that, they have to be at the centre of it.

But, and there is a but to all of this I’m afraid, I think the conversation about where Product Managers sit is the wrong one to be having.

It’s based on the premise that having policy/strategy/ operations/digital as separate directorates/groups is the right structure. I’m personally much more interested in having the conversation about if/how we bring those things together as one. Having teams that contain all those things, and are answerable to all those areas might be ideological, but logically it also seems (to me at least) to be the best way to really make sure we fixing the right problems, with the right priorities and are truly doing the right things for our users needs.

If we were able to do all that, and work across government departments as well, that would be my nirvana.

Who we Product Managers answer to ultimately is almost irrelevant as long as we are empowered to deliver things that meet the strategic vision; deliver the policy intent; design things that meet user needs and deliver value to operations and the wider business.

But obviously we have to be responsible, and we have to be accountable to someone and sit somewhere, so as long as we remember to keep working with, engaging and including our policy/strategy and operational colleagues as well as our digital ones, then for now digital feels as good a home as any to me.

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