What Can Product Managers Do for Your City?

Chances are you already have people in your department playing this role, if only informally.
December 14, 2015

In the startup world, product management is becoming one of the most essential tools in the organizational toolkit. In fact, due to its increasing use, product management is becoming a career. You can even take classes in it.

Product managers help organizations develop, implement and improve products and services in order to better meet users’ needs. In many private companies, they are a bridge between the vision of the executives and designers and the techies that actually build products. Product management is an important part of making government more ‘human-centered.’ 

The discipline comes out of the startup world, but importantly for government, it doesn’t have to be limited to technology. Imagine, for example, you had someone whose job it was to make sure that people applying for public benefits, going to court or trying to have their records expunged had the best possible user experience.

According to Greylock partner Josh Ellman, a product manager’s job is to keep a product team coordinated, informed and working toward delivering quality products that advance a clear vision and the organization’s mission. Product managers typically have little formal authority but rely on influence to keep people moving and aligned. Their key skill sets include being able to work with deeply technical people while holding a focus on the big picture, a feel for what users want and need (and an ability to develop and use data to better understand that), and strong organizational skills.

Sound familiar? Chances are you already have people in your department playing this role, if only informally.

We’re also starting to see governments formally bringing product managers in. After healthcare.gov struggled in its early days, the federal government called in famed product manager Jini Kim to help solve the website’s problems. The U.S. Digital Service encourages governments to hire product managers as well, as do many Presidential Innovation Fellows.

So let’s say you agree that having a product manager can be useful.  Do you hire one or not?  If so, how many?  Let’s break that down.

External, professional product managers can add value but have to be chosen carefully. Product managers, especially those coming from the startup world, may not be used to the pace and complexity of government, or the demands of working with vulnerable populations. But when picked well, product managers can infuse new purpose and energy into your team.

Another route is to empower people who are already doing product management in some way.

Naming people as product managers, helping them learn from each and providing trainings or other support can build product management capacity internally with less outside support. Our gut is that some combination of external support and internal empowerment can get to a good result at minimal cost.

Getting Started

  • Think of someone in your office who acts like a product manager. Where can you give him or her more latitude or support?
  • Find a professional product manager and pick their brain over coffee.
  • Bring in a product manager to talk to your team about the discipline and ways you can adopt it.
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