The Importance of Product Management in Government
By: Chris Johnston & Kelly O’Connor
In providing services to its taxpayer, the U.S. Government builds and maintains thousands of digital products: prospective students apply for loans, Veterans refill prescriptions, travelers get passports, and citizens file taxes. The list goes on.
The U.S. Government has delivered much of the ubiquitous technology we use today. The Internet, microchip and GPS were developed by the U.S. Department of Defense, the electronic health record, pacemaker, nicotine patch were products of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and fire resistant clothing and infant formula were invented at NASA. These are just a few examples of government innovation.
But the approach taken to build and deliver digital products needs to evolve to take advantage of modern software development methods including agile iterative development, human centered design, and continuous delivery. Despite fancy design labs and alleged “digital transformation” capabilities, most vendors and government agencies continue to deliver digital products using traditional project management and waterfall development methods.
We can improve both user experience and cost efficiencies of digital product development in government by doing two things:
- Designate experienced government product managers to lead digital product development; and
- Evolve our national model of service to make it easier and more attractive for talented private sector product managers, engineers, and designers to serve in government for “tours of duty.”
Why does government need “product managers”?
If you search for “product manager” on USAJobs (the government’s hiring website), you won’t find many postings. But you will find hundreds, even thousands, of project and program manager openings.
That’s because it’s common across government agencies and vendors in the federal space, to use the terms “project” and “product” synonymously. While both are important, they require different tools, methods, and skillsets:
- Project management is focused on managing to a plan. Focus areas include managing schedule, budget, risk, policy compliance and reporting status to stakeholders. Success for a project manager is delivering a defined scope of work on-time and on-budget.
- Product management is focused on delivering a product a user wants or needs. Focus areas include user research, design thinking, iterative development, and delivering minimum viable products quickly. Success for a product manager is delivering a product that users love — and use to complete tasks (or in the private sector — a product customers will pay for)!
Most government managers (and government vendors) have extensive project management training and a Project Management Professional (PMP) certification but little or no training in things like design thinking, iterative releases, product funnels and analytics, and user research.
Because government outsources most of its information technology development, partnering with vendors who understand the difference between project and product management is critical. In order for this outsourced model to work, government must have a lean team of in-house digital experts and product managers to help procure, oversee, and deliver modern, user-friendly products to users.
Product managers have a wide scope of responsibility throughout the product lifecycle:
- Understand the customer and the problems they are facing
- Build, iterate, and release a product that addresses the problems, with direct input from those users
- Define objectives, measure results, and make improvements according to data
- Drive communication about the product benefits and (in the private sector) the overall profitability of the product.
Understanding your customers and their problems comes from user research: speaking directly with users; watching them, in context, trying to solve a problem on their own; asking them in many different ways what problem they need to solve and how they feel about a given solution. This approach to building interactive systems is typically referred to as Human-Centered Design (HCD), User-Centered Design, or Design Thinking. Involving a human perspective throughout the product design process helps ensure that the resulting product is usable, effective, efficient, and enjoyable. Think about any frustrating product you may have used in the past. You might have complained, “Did anybody even use this before they started selling it?” In all likelihood, nobody did.
Once you have identified the problem and are ready to start building a product, your users are still central to the process. Neglecting to include user input during implementation is probably one of the biggest causes of failure in government projects. It is unlikely that your initial research identified the precise, perfect way to solve the problem. Assuming that’s true, when do you want to learn you’re wrong? Typically, the government learns at the end of the project, after years have passed and millions of dollars spent. Instead, using an Agile approach to software development, you can deliver a minimal viable product (MVP) that solves part of the need or problem. With the feedback from your users, you can then make changes to the requirements and build and release the next iteration of the product.
In addition to the direct user research discussed earlier that helps understand users and their problems, it’s also imperative to collect quantitative data. When the Digital Service team at the Department of Veterans Affairs launches new products, we develop metrics that help us know quickly if we are meeting our goals. For example, when we launched a new online healthcare application for Veterans, our goal was to make it easier for Veterans to apply for healthcare, thus increasing the percentage of applications that the VA received electronically. This trailing metric — applications submitted electronically — was just the first we defined. We also identified a leading indicator of the amount of traffic received at the start of the application. This gave us insight into how well we were driving usage and communicating the benefits of the online application process from Vets.gov. We then developed usage metrics in the form of a user funnel and defined key steps in the application process to see where Veterans were dropping out.
Defining success metrics helps you focus on what’s important in your product and how well it solves the problems you’ve identified. Defining key steps the user must take is also important in order to shine a spotlight on where in the process users are failing. With this data, you can conduct further in-person research to understand why they are failing and devise an even better solution.
Evolving our National Model of Service
In the legal industry, lawyers fiercely compete to clerk for a U.S. Supreme Court Justice. What if we could replicate this model for technology?
Many people in today’s technology workforce aren’t drawn to a long-term career service role in government, but they do want to have an impact and work on something they care about. And what better place to do that than in government?
The U.S. Digital Service enables product managers, engineers, and designers from the private sector to serve two years or more on a “tour of duty” in government working on problems like immigration, education, Veteran services, health care, and data security and privacy.
This model enables a powerful combination of private sector innovation, government career service leadership and subject matter expertise, and vendor outsourcing capabilities to scale and support innovative products. Moreover, if this model was bi-directional, government career service employees would be empowered to work for a year or two at top performing companies in the private sector and bring all that learning back to government.
The U.S. needs to enhance our model of service to enable talented and driven product managers, engineers, and designers to go back and forth between the public and private sectors more easily. Imagine if our colleagues at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs could work for a year or two with top tech companies. There would be a tremendous amount of shared learning and innovation in both the public and private sector.
The U.S. Government has delivered an incredible amount of technical innovation this past century, and to continue we need to build product management capabilities in government and modernize our national model of service.
The best of technology.
The best of government.
And we want you.
We’re looking for the most tenacious designers, software engineers, product managers, and more, who are committed to untangling, rewiring and redesigning critical government services. You’ll join a team of the most talented technologists from across the private sector and government.
If you have questions regarding employment with the U.S. Digital Service, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org and visit usds.gov/join.