FWDThinking Episode 2: Empowering product managers

Published On Jul 28, 2020

All opinions expressed in in these episodes are personal and do not reflect the opinions of the organizations for which our guests work.


The second episode of FWDThinking dove into product management. Product managers are a must in the tech world, owning every facet of a product from conception to end-of-life. But as I learned, despite the technology side of digital government, the title isn’t that common in the public sector.

As someone who’s been a private sector product manager for over a decade of my career, I’ve heard the many complaints about trying to build products in government. “We can’t take risks,” they tell me. “And just try to ship an MVP; it’ll be bloated by committee before you ship anything at all.”

But it turns out that for every facet of public sector product management that’s hard, there’s a silver lining. For example, you can share openly, and innovate in public—unlike for-profit firms that need to keep intellectual property under wraps.

To find out more about empowering public sector product managers, I talked with three amazing digital government leaders:

  • Kathy Pham, a computer scientist who worked in the private sector before becoming a founding product and engineering manager for the US Digital Service. She teaches ethical product management at Harvard and runs the responsible computer science program at Mozilla.
  • Katherine Benjamin, who recently joined the City of New York as the deputy CTO for Digital Services in the Mayor’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer. She’s worked in Ontario’s digital service and the NHS in the UK. Her frontline work with hard-to reach populations is where she first became interested in how technology can be a way to include people.
  • Ayushi Roywho leads the state and local practice at 18F, and works as a product manager on projects such as Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance programs. Before her Federal work, she built out the innovation team in Oakland, California after working on support for crime victims and mental health crises.

All three build technology products, and have fascinating perspectives on product delivery.


Learning what’s folklore

As Kathy said, it’s not clear what’s possible—and you have to discern “what really is not legal,” versus things people think can’t be done—what the group refers to as ‘folklore.’

Kathy shared the example, told by Erie Meyer, of people who were told they couldn’t survey students because of the US Paperwork Reduction Act. While this was untrue, it was folklore, which meant user research wasn’t getting done. “It’s not out of any kind of malice,” said Kathy. “It’s maybe that over time teams have passed along this idea that it’s not legal for a group to go talk to a group of students to understand education, for example. And someone might say, ‘well it’s because of something like the Paperwork Reduction Act.’ And they believe it’s true.”

So a public sector product manager has to bring others to this conclusion. Kathy explained that the PM has to tell others, “I can understand why you might interpret that it’s illegal to go talk to a group of students to understand what it’s like to apply to colleges, but really you can, and this is why it’s okay.” But as she pointed out, “you can pluck any product manager out of the private sector and they probably haven’t had to do that before. That, especially, is a big part that’s very, very different.”

Ayushi agreed, sharing an example of her own:

“When I started as the state and local Director at 18F, I was hearing a lot of different kinds of folklore about how 18F can’t work with state and local governments. They were like, “hi, welcome to your new position. And by the way, you can’t do what you’re being asked to do.”

Ayushi eventually found the Intergovernmental Cooperation Agreement (IGCA) that governs how 18F is allowed to work with other agencies at the federal state and local level as long as it has Federal funding, the support of the mayor or government, and a few other criteria. There’s so much folklore that make doors seem closed. Her answer is as simple as it is bold: “Retry all the doors.”

In her time in Ontario, Katherine also encountered the “urban legend of ‘you can’t speak to users’.” As she explained, “In Canada, there’s a certain period before the election when you can’t go out and engage with users. So we had a working hypothesis that the reason people were so frightened to talk to users is that they remember every election getting these notifications saying, “don’t talk to people!”


Low-hanging fruit

When I prodded our guests about many governments’ inability to take advantage of the latest and greatest technology, it was clear that there’s a flip side: Plenty of low-hanging fruit. Kathy pointed out that often, because the technology is modern, you can bring in proven approaches that have been thoroughly tested in other sectors. “We don’t have to go innovate for some like magical new thing,” said Kathy. “We have already known how to do that over here [in another industry] for a few years.”

We returned to this topic when I brought up some of the recent advances in AI later in the conversation. I think that’s what the kids call Foreshadowing. 


Capital-V MVP

In Product Management, much is made of the Minimum Viable Product (MVP)—the least complex thing you can deliver that proves the idea or removes the largest initial risk. As someone who’s written a lot about Lean Startup, where the MVP is Gospel, I believe firmly that “if you aren’t ashamed of your first release, you’ve waited too long.” I’ve even written about it in the past.

But that isn’t the case in government. One reason for this, as Katherine pointed out, is that “the reality of government is that, even with the best of intentions, you often don’t have time to circle back because something else becomes a priority. Katherine observes that this is where much digital inequality begins. “It’s certainly not intentional, but that’s ultimately the result.”

Her solution is to focus on people who have more amplified needs. “If you think about a distribution curve—on the two ends of that distribution curve, you’ll have very amplified needs,” she said. “If you can get it right for the tail ends, then you’re probably going to hit those people in the middle by default. So kind of just flipping that instead of, “let’s build it for the mainstream and then we’ll think about accessibility.”


Needs versus luxury

Ayushi goes beyond just designing for the outliers. One of the big differences between private- and public-sector product management is that when you’re in the public sector you’re “designing for a constituent user that is probably coming from a place of need, rather than luxury, right?” she said. “No-one goes to the medicaid.gov site because they have free time, or because they’re excited to do so. They probably have a horrible reason that they needed to get support.” As a result, what it means to be a product person focused on a constituent user is very different from what it means to be one focused on a consumer user.


Public sector product managers need their own job description

The role of product manager is one of the broadest, most influential jobs in an organization. But I can confirm from personal experience that it’s also a job with very little authority. You’re alternately an influencer, an advocate, and a curmudgeon, trying to get time and attention on your product rather than the myriad other things people could be working on.

In the tech world, this often means a background in business and computer science. With the resulting lack of diversity in hiring. My guests looked much farther afield in staffing product roles. At the USDS, everyone was called a Digital Service Expert; they only referred to themselves as product manager internally. And sprints were called “thin slices.”

“The field itself has to exist in the public sector,” said Kathy. “The field, as it exists in the private sector has to change. And if anything, PMs going to the public sector can help inform the product managers in the private sector, because they now have a much deeper sense of responsibility.” Ayushi agreed that “It has been happening, but it happens perhaps in distributed fashions, where there isn’t a single product owner, or a single product manager.”

Katherine said that in the private sector, “you’re having to start from scratch and articulate what a product manager is.” She’s seen private sector product managers struggle to make the transition. “If they’re coming in from the private sector and they’re used to being recognized as very senior with executive decision making skills. They’re still senior with executive decision making skills in government, but because of the hierarchy of government, people might not, first of all, immediately recognize that. And if you’re the type of person who responds to that in a negative way and becomes defensive, it doesn’t tend to go so well.”

Despite the challenges of the shift, Katherine doesn’t think recruiting is a problem. “I think digital government sells itself,” she offered. “There’s a lot of people who really want to join this, if you can just tell them what it is that they’re going to do.”

Kathy thinks that optimism may wane. “Candidly, over time, the recruitment becomes a lot harder,” she said. “At least for USDS, people who have the luxury of picking up and moving to Washington, DC, are just very different, right? So it makes it much harder to recruit for a very diverse group of people. It’s very biased towards a certain type of people. And it’s something that I have to think about constantly: ‘how do we change?’”


Ethics is complex, hard, and essential

We talked about the ethics of user research, from the risk of exploitation to the need to incorporate it throughout the design and delivery process. Kathy pointed out that this isn’t a new problem—but digital product managers have to catch up. In both private and public sector product management, “there’s a reckoning of tech and its harms,” she said. “There are so many fields, including user experience, research and science technology studies, and anthropology … that have been thinking about which communities are missing, which communities to include for a long time.”

Ayushi pointed out that the term “ethics” is an incredibly broad umbrella, and needs to be incorporated into every phase of civic engagement. What I took away from this is that ethical public sector product management is the work of ensuring that the things we build align with the values we hold true as a society—whether a bill of human rights, a constitution, or a moral code.


Working in the open is a superpower

Since we’re talking about empowerment, one of the superpowers that really came across in our conversation was collaboration. “One of the biggest pluses of the digital government movement,” said Katherine, “is just picking up the phone and chatting with someone. People will just show their homework.”

She remembered calling a colleague who had moved on, in order to learn from her mistakes. “I remember it was this great call in 2017 where she’s like, ‘what are you trying to do?’” Her friend replied without hesitation: “‘Here’s what I’m telling you. Bam. Bam, bam, bam. Whatever you do, don’t do this. Don’t do this. Don’t do this. The whole can of worms. Go in this direction.’ And that just saves you a month of work, so I think that that level of collaboration is really helpful.”


We covered a lot!

There’s plenty more in this amazing conversation. I sat back for most of it and let them talk—they’re already planning virtual coffee as a result. We quoted Foucault, the democratization of knowledge, the wide variance in technology budgets, and even the recent announcement of the GPT-3 model in AI (spoiler alert: We have bigger things to tackle.)

I’m loving the easy flow of these FWDThinking discussions, and for me, this one was a particularly good chance to think hard about luxuries versus needs, the profitable middle and the necessary edges, and how we’re redefining public sector roles in a digital world.