How product leadership can collaborate: Find opportunities, align stakeholders, and make decisions

We offer tips for government and vendor product leadership based on our real-world experience building human-centered government products and services.

When designed with beneficiaries in mind, government services can be simple, effective, and accessible to all. To achieve this, it’s important for government agencies and vendors to balance beneficiary needs, program goals, the agency’s mission, and budget when designing public services. These services include both technology-enabled online and offline experiences which we’ll broadly refer to as products in this article. 

This is where product leadership comes in. When designing and building government products, there are typically two product roles—product owners (PO) and product managers (PM). While different organizations may use different terms to describe these roles, in this toolkit, we will use PO to describe a government PO and PM to describe a vendor PM. 

In our experience, POs and PMs complement each other and work together to ensure success. A great PO–PM partnership fosters a positive team dynamic and implementation of products. 

If you’re a government PO, this toolkit will demonstrate how to optimize working with vendor PMs. 

This toolkit can help you:

  • Collaborate with your PM to find new opportunities and solution together 
  • Learn how to make a feature brief to align stakeholders
  • See how projects and teams succeed when POs are empowered
  • Work with your PM to navigate competing priorities
  • Apply tips on how to best work with your PO or PM to your own projects

Some important definitions: 

  • A government Product Owner (PO) has deep knowledge and expertise of agency programs, policies, and goals. Broadly, the PO owns the vision and strategy behind the product; they may or may not have experience with software development—and that’s okay! Because POs have multiple responsibilities, they may be less involved in the product development team’s planning and executing work. 

  • A vendor Product Manager (PM) manages the day-to-day operations of building products and has more time to focus on the minutiae of a technology product. In collaboration with a team of software engineers, designer/researchers, and project managers, PMs translate the product strategy from the PO into actionable tasks. 

  • A technology product is a group of features, or capabilities, that together help enable the agency to provide a service to their users. Examples of products include case management systems or claim submission portals. 

  • A feature is part of a product and often enables users to carry out an action. Examples of features include the ability to manually and automatically assign cases to case workers or the ability for a claim application to be auto-saved.

Factors like team size, team makeup, project goals, and project needs can affect the relationship between a PO and PM. These variables can also shape the day-to-day work of POs and PMs. To offer a comprehensive look into how POs and PMs collaborate, we’re sharing perspectives from our own experience working with government agencies.

This is the first toolkit in a series of two. To read about collaboration as you head into product launch, see our next toolkit.

Identify new opportunities and propose solutions

Government POs can help vendor PMs by collaborating with them to identify, clarify, and prioritize new opportunities to improve a product. Government POs have a deep understanding of how existing programs work in practice, and they can use this knowledge to guide vendor PMs who likely will not have this nuanced context. POs can also help direct PMs to the right agency staff to further explore relevant context. 

Such was the case with one of our projects when our government partner’s customer service center alerted us that a high number of users were submitting requests to cancel their benefits but hadn’t meant to. This problem was raised to the PO, who subsequently flagged it for the PM to investigate. The PO was able to connect the PM with the right agency staff member to provide more detailed information about the problem. 

The PM then worked with the team to come up with potential solutions, including how the options aligned with program goals and how they would impact the PO's existing roadmap and priorities. This type of information from a vendor PM and their team can help POs make or recommend the best decisions for their program. Meanwhile, the PO coordinated with agency staff to reach out directly to users who had requested cancellations of their benefits. This ensured that users would not mistakenly lose their benefits while the team worked on a solution. 

Ultimately, the team came up with three potential solutions and presented them to the agency via the PO. After deciding on one, the PO and PM worked together to determine when to implement the solution. They landed on a timeline that balanced the importance of quickly implementing a solution without delaying the current work. 

Align stakeholders and team with a feature brief 

After the team identifies new opportunities, those opportunities need to be concretely defined and scoped. Vendor PMs can work with government POs to ensure that stakeholders and the team align around the problems being solved, the proposed solution, and the project timeline.

To help ensure alignment between the vendor and government stakeholders, the vendor PM can create a feature brief, or an overview of what the work is and why it’s needed, to support the PO. 

In one of our projects, the team created a feature brief before they began new work. To create this brief, the PM gathered information from the PO and other stakeholders (identified by the PO) to define the problem statement, solution opportunity, business requirements, open questions and assumptions, goals and non-goals, and how to measure success. The PM also worked with the product development team to determine the scope of what was feasible in a certain timeframe, given technical limitations and capacity constraints. 

The benefits of feature briefs include:

  • Serving as the source of truth for the product development team and the government agency.

  • Helping product development teams devise solutions, and then present those solutions back to the PO. 

  • Empowering POs to make decisions because stakeholders are aligned on goals and priorities. When POs are not empowered, all levels of strategic and even tactical decisions end up needing approval by the leadership team. This can create bottlenecks and overhead, ultimately impeding the development process.

Negotiate and make decisions on tradeoffs 

Throughout the development process, there are a number of points where it may be necessary to make a decision based on tradeoffs. When these situations arise, the vendor PM can work with the government PO to make decisions. Given their different focus areas and expertise, they both can help the team reach a decision that best serves the agency and its users. 

Government POs help navigate tricky conversations around competing priorities by gathering necessary data and information from stakeholders and the team, assessing the pros and cons of each approach, and making decisions that best balance the needs of stakeholders, users, and the team. At times, this balance may be hard to achieve, but it’s helpful for POs to clearly communicate the reason behind their team’s decision with relevant project stakeholders and the product development team. This helps build trust with stakeholders and the team. Likewise, the vendor PM can provide the necessary data from the product development team to help advocate for the team’s position. 

For example, the PO on one of our projects helped advocate for a decision when the team found that certain aspects of their work would take longer to complete than initially estimated. They were midway through developing the feature, so they could either wait to launch the entire feature or separate it into multiple launches. The product development team felt it would be better to separate the delivery into multiple launches so we could learn from each launch and iterate based on our learnings. The PM brought this information to the PO, outlining the reasoning and pros and cons of each approach. They also discussed how this would factor into the agency’s goals. 

Ultimately, the PM and PO concluded that it was worthwhile to take a phased launch approach. They both expected that the portion of our work we could deliver on time would have the largest impact. The PO then brought this information to their stakeholders, advocating for the solution agreed upon by the team and ultimately getting stakeholder buy-in. 

The PO’s presence helped streamline the process of deciding on tradeoffs. Because the PO had insight into their stakeholder’s goals and how they may have changed over time, they were able to ensure that the compromise still aligned with the stakeholders’ vision. 

Wrap up 

As a government PO, your organizational understanding and domain expertise gives valuable context to the technology work, aligns stakeholders on decisions, and navigates competing priorities throughout the development cycle. Vendor PMs are there to help you—whether they’re researching new opportunities, building a feature brief, or supplying data to help advocate for a decision. PMs can perform nitty gritty work while POs maintain a holistic understanding of the product space. 

To learn about how POs and PMs can work together to interface with other teams and prepare for a product launch, read this toolkit.

Written by

Kira Leadholm

Editorial Manager

Kira Leadholm is the Editorial Manager at Nava. Before working at Nava, she held various editorial roles and worked as a reporter at outlets including the Better Government Association, SF Weekly, and the Chicago Reader.

Claudia Wynn

Product manager

Claudia Wynn is a product manager at Nava. Before joining Nava, Claudia gained years of experience as an in-house and consulting product manager in the public and private sectors.

Amy Lai

Senior product manager

Amy Lai is a senior product manager at Nava. She has a wide range of experience managing products and services in the public and healthcare sectors.

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