Product Management in the Public Sector

Dena Sotoudeh

Dena Sotoudeh

January 4, 2021

Product managers align and empower product team and stakeholders on creating products that solve a problem, have a high level of impact on users and are feasible to build and deliver within a relevant frame of time.
Product managers align and empower product team and stakeholders on creating products that solve a problem, have a high level of impact on users and are feasible to build and deliver within a relevant frame of time.

Product Management is an emerging and diverse role in both the private and public sector. Most organizations have their own definition, set of expectations and responsibilities for what the role encompasses. In the private sector, PMs are often seen as the person who will manage the process of taking a product from concept to launch with strong user adoption, and a high level of profitability (for example, TikTok, Uber Eats, and Airbnb).

In the public sector, however, products are not driven by marketing and revenue. Rather, they are designed and created to address people’s needs, using taxpayers’ money. The online CERB application is a great example of such a digital product.

Similarities and Differences in PM Roles

The core role of a PM in the public and private sector is the same. They prioritize, communicate and align stakeholders and teams around:

In the public sector, however, the sales and marketing aspect of product development is replaced by raising public awareness about the product, adoption and scale of impact (COVID Alert App).

In the public sector, the PM role sits with policy, strategy and operations teams. Working closely with policy makers helps PMs ensure that the product meets the policy intent as well as the needs of every possible user. Working together also helps identify gaps in policy and how they can be addressed. Working with strategy and operations teams allows the products to be delivered in the most optimal way by utilizing the existing infrastructure and available architecture.

Challenges and Opportunities

In the public sector, a PM is likely to experience a number of challenges that are more prevalent in organizations that have

1. Inclusion

Government services should be inclusive and accessible to every person who is entitled to receive them. The reality, however, is quite different because the data that is being collected often fails to identify every possible persona that must be taken into consideration when designing a public product. That’s when people fall through the cracks. This creates an opportunity for PMs to not only champion and empower UX professionals but also promote diversity in hiring talents that can capture and analyze data from a wide range of users.

2. Scale

The second challenge is the sheer size of the government and its hierarchy which demand interaction with a high number of stakeholders who need to be informed and consulted to provide support for development and approval for product release. Though time consuming at times, these conversations and rapport building activities are of enormous value in planning a successful product launch. Many of the stakeholders that PMs interact with can act as product ambassadors. Through conversations within their network, they can generate awareness, interest and support about the product as well as the team behind it.

3. Legacy Systems

Next, is the requirement to work with legacy systems and technologies that are no longer considered to be productive tools. This can reduce the agility and speed of the product development team. However, it also gives them the opportunity to improve or even transform processes by introducing and showcasing tools that can increase efficiency and promote a culture of cross-functional collaboration.

4. Cultural Differences

There are also cultural differences when it comes to collaboration and cross-functional team work. In the public sector, oftentimes, teams and departments that should ideally work together are operating independent of each other, creating deliverables in silos. This is partly due to the size and complexity of the operation. This approach can create a high number of errors in design and development because the information and feedback that is essential to successful ideation and prototyping is not received and implemented in a timely manner. By demonstrating the benefits of collaboration, knowledge sharing and working in the open, PMs can play a vital role in bridging the gap between teams and breaking the silos.

5. Market Drivers

Last but not least, is lack of tangible market drivers. Products in the private sector are often driven by competition, deadlines, revenue targets, etc. In the public sector, these forces are notably absent which can make it more challenging for a PM to keep the team motivated to deliver. Reminding teams and stakeholders of the problem the product is solving and the impact it will have on people’s lives when released is key to keeping the momentum going.

Final Thoughts

Working as a PM in the public sector is both challenging and rewarding. With the civic-tech movement at its early stages, PMs can play a vital role in shaping the movement and guiding it towards a direction where policy and technology can work hand-in-hand to create inclusive and easy to access digital services. Here are a few opportunities for PMs to shine and lead: