Product Management in the Government Sector

Product Management is a widely utilized methodology to facilitate the development of products across many industries. However, most firms in the commercial industry who develop software products also own them and benefit from their success. They have a vested financial interest in their success and may have venture capital funding that can drive product strategy.

In contrast, software products developed in the government space by contractors are typically not “owned" by the contractors doing the development. Funding is based on acts of congress. Companies respond to requests for proposals for services that the government requires to create and maintain information systems. Even after the contract for a product’s development has been awarded and the product has been developed, the firm does not own the product they are developing. With no ownership of the product, how are organizations supposed to manage them?

A Drive for Civic Innovation

Product Managers in the government space must have an inherent drive for the betterment of society - a civic duty if you will. We may not work directly for the government, but the products we develop and manage serve the greater good. The glory typically associated with taking products from small startup to future enterprise may not happen in the public sector. In order to be an evangelist for the product and be a trustworthy advisor, you must truly care about what it can do for the people using it. Members of the Bellese team not only work on government contracts, but also partner with organizations such as the Code for America (CfA) Baltimore chapter, Code for Baltimore (CfB) to develop civic technology for citizens. This recent post describes some of the great work we have done recently!

This blog post will explore the methods Bellese Technologies utilizes to practice Product Management as a government contractor and will cover the following topics: 

Build Strong Relationships With Government Stakeholders

Many government agencies are establishing designated product owners for their systems. Government contractors should have a counterpart in the form of a Product Manager who works in parallel with the product owner to ensure the customer goals and values for the product are reflected in the work your team is doing.

Become a trustworthy advisor

In the commercial industry, the development of a feature may be justified by potential profit, improved experience, and more unique visitors to a given platform. Government products are not concerned with the profitability of a given product, but rather the perceived benefit that it will provide the direct users of the system or citizens. Government leads will need the contractor’s expertise in data driven product development methods to ensure they have what is required to make informed and data-driven decisions.

Transparency and insights

As a Product Manager in the public sector, It is imperative to be just as transparent when giving good news as bad. In order to be the type of product advisor that government agencies trust, all of the cards must be on the table to ensure teams are working in concert to meet objectives.

For example, there could be a situation for which the development of services in one functional area are exceeding expectations but development is lagging in another area. Both realities need to be presented to the stakeholders, but they should come with data to help drive decisions on how to proceed. Data could be in the form of average feature completion time, burnup charts, etc. Resources could be moved to the struggling area to expedite development, but that could put other objectives at risk. At the end of the day, the contractor does not own the product, but the contractor needs to provide the government with all of the required information to make the right decision.

Align Metrics

The customer's goals and objectives and yours need to be one in the same. In the commercial industry your product’s metrics will mostly coincide with profitability, customer base adoption, market position, and quarterly earnings. Metrics in the government sector are meeting legislation requirements and outcome driven. Legislation requires that products be available for public use by a defined date and the date must be met. As a Product Manager working on government products, you must be constantly aware of your client’s objectives to ensure alignment with your team’s backlog.

Let’s examine the scenario for which a government system that provides financial benefits to citizens requires an update to use an alternate ID instead of a SSN. A key results the government may dictate for this endeavor could be:

In this instance, the contractor and the government leads responsible for this product should have agreement on the key results for the initiative to ensure there is alignment across organizations and that expectations are established up front, leaving no room for ambiguity on the expected outcomes. Immediately upon award of a government task order, contractors should align on metrics to gauge the success of the product. There will be some insight into meaningful metrics during the request for proposal phase, however these key results should be solidified early in contract performance so the contractor and government agencies are aligned on objectives.

Prioritization is King

In the government sector, there can be many stakeholders for a product with different priorities. As a Product Manager working in this environment, data should aid in the prioritization of features rather than letting subjective opinions drive the order for which work should be completed. One technique that we have had success with on various government contracts is Weighted Shortest Job first (or WSJF) which is used to “produce maximum economic benefit” in the shortest possible time.

There are still times when human intervention is required in order to prioritize work. Let's say there is an upcoming deadline for an objective that will take longer to develop than other features. The objective should still have a high prioritization, but it may not bubble to the top based on the WSJF calculation. If the government lead and the contractor are aligned on the metrics discussed previously, human intervention can help correctly prioritize the work for the upcoming sprint or long term plan.

User Research is Key

The concept of Human-Centered Design (HCD) is relatively new to some government systems. This provides the opportunity for contractors to demonstrate how user research can aid in the development of more performant and usable systems. But it also puts certain stakeholders in a peculiar situation. Some government agencies may not be used to User Experience (UX) professionals having a seat at the table when it comes to product strategy. In the past, government stakeholders were making design decisions. Now these stakeholders must utilize data from user research and design as input to product focused decision making.

As a Product Manager, you should be able to show stakeholders common user behaviors and the appropriate interactions the product should utilize. This is done via reporting of any quantitative and qualitative user research findings that justify the enhancement. In addition, usability testing will validate whether or not the end users will find the enhancement useful and will help justify the implementation of an enhancement. As contractors, we do not own the product, but we must do our best to provide the government with as much data as possible to make informed decisions on product development.

The public sector can be an interesting place for a Product Manager to operate. In the commercial industry many products are built to be habit forming to keep people coming back. Many government systems were originally built to just get the job done with no concern of “how” the user got their tasks completed. They would be required to return to meet their legislative obligations. When designing government web products, you don’t need to consider advertising space as part of the screen real estate. However, government systems do need habit forming interactions in order to keep the users engaged. This could be in the form of a daily email with a status update of their progress on a given task, or push notifications to keep users up to date on deadlines for public programs or other relevant information. What may appear to be the smallest interaction, could lead to a significant increase in user engagement and satisfaction.

Written by

Steve GlassProduct Manager