The government product owner is responsible for setting the vision, ensuring effective delivery and being accountable for a specific product, such as a website, policy or public service program. It is a role that is becoming more critical, particularly for successful digital government project launches and continued management.
Government digital service organizations who incorporate product owner roles into their operations include the U.S. Digital Service, General Services Administration’s digital group 18F, UK’s Government Digital Service and the Canadian Digital Service, to name just a few. Local government technical and digital teams are also beginning to actively adopt this practice.
To truly be effective, the product owner must be empowered, including having the authority to make decisions (based on input from external users to internal partners), have subject matter expertise and advocate for support within the agency.
“An empowered product owner is someone who understands your organization, the problem we’re solving, and can advocate for the product we ultimately build together,” says 18F. “They’ll be responsible for establishing and carrying the long-term vision of the project, implementing a strategy, and guiding its progress.”
While the product owner is ultimately responsible for the direction and success of the product, “This doesn’t mean they make decisions in a vacuum,” says the U.S. Forest Service’s Aaron Burk. “We keep other stakeholders involved in the process.”
As recommended by the 18F, the product owner should:
- Keep the user’s needs in the forefront
- Connect with the people using your product as often as possible
- Inform and engage other stakeholders
- Remain flexible
- Use plain language
- Make difficult decisions
- Boost the team’s momentum and morale
Product owners must have full political and managerial support from leadership in order to establish and maintain credibility within the organization.
As the authors of the Deloitte white paper, “Successful Agile in government: Supporting the product owner,” write:
“Many successful Agile projects have one or more key senior ‘sponsors.’ Whether formally named as such or not, these senior leaders make themselves available to POs when the latter hit organizational roadblocks. Sometimes the PO just needs to be able to walk into an office or pick up the phone and make a quick call to someone who knows what is going on, and who can provide guidance without having to wait for the next monthly meeting. Without sufficient leadership support, the PO may have a difficult time helping to guide an Agile project to a successful conclusion.”
Play six in the U.S. federal government’s Digital Services Playbook offers a great product owner-specific checklist and set of questions when starting a new project. These help ensure a designated person is empowered and held accountable for the project’s success.
Here is a modified version:
- A product owner has been identified
- All stakeholders agree that the product owner has the authority to assign tasks (as opposed to keep track of) and make decisions about features and technical implementation details
- The product owner has a product management background with enough technical experience or understanding to assess alternatives and weigh tradeoffs
- The product owner has a work plan that includes budget estimates and identifies funding sources
- The product owner has a strong relationship with the procurement/finance/contracting officer
- Who is the product owner?
- What organizational changes have been made to ensure the product owner has sufficient authority over and support for the project?
- What does it take for the product owner to add or remove a feature from the service?