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Every United States Federal Government Employee as a Product Manager?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Bill Brantley
December 12, 2021

My first exposure to the President’s Management Agenda (PMA) was in 2013 after working for the Office of Personnel Management’s Strategic Workforce Planning Group. The PMA at the time was President Obama’s Second Term Management Agenda, and my team was tasked with the employee engagement portion of the agenda. Working President Obama’s PMA was a great learning experience in managing interagency initiatives. Since then, I have eagerly awaited the subsequent PMAs to learn how each President views their management imperatives for the federal government. The common theme is how to make government work better for United States citizens.

President Biden has continued the focus on delivering government services more efficiently and effectively in the three priorities of his PMA. The Biden-Harris PMA was released in November 2021 and listed three priorities with their corresponding strategies. The first initiative is for the federal government to become a “model employer” through high employee engagement, strengthening public unions and promoting better training and retention. The second initiative is to improve customer service for all Americans who receive government services. Finally, the third initiative is to, “Use how we manage the business of government—as a federal enterprise—to catalyze outcomes that support building back better.”

The Priorities and Their Strategies:

Priority 1 – Strengthening and Empowering the Federal Workforce

  • Strategy 1 – Attract and hire the most qualified employees, who reflect the diversity of our country, in the right roles across the federal government.
  • Strategy 2 – Make every federal job a good job, where all employees are engaged, supported, heard and empowered, with opportunities to learn, grow, join a union and have an effective voice in their workplaces through their union, and thrive throughout their careers.
  • Strategy 3 – Reimagine and build a roadmap to the future of federal work informed by lessons from the pandemic and nationwide workforce and workplace trends.
  • Strategy 4 – Build the personnel system and support required to sustain the federal government as a model employer able to effectively deliver on a broad range of agency missions.

Priority 2 – Delivering Excellent, Equitable and Secure Federal Services and Customer Experience

  • Strategy 1 – Improve the service design, digital products and customer-experience management of Federal High-Impact Service Providers by reducing customer burden, addressing inequities, and streamlining processes.
  • Strategy 2 – Design, build and manage government service delivery for key life experiences that cut across federal agencies.
  • Strategy 3 – Identify and prioritize the development of federal shared products, services and standards that enable simple, seamless and secure customer experiences across High Impact Service Providers.

I will skip Priority 3 and its two strategies because Priority 3 deals with federal acquisition strategy and financial management, which are irrelevant to our discussion.

Evolving to Product Management Skills and Capabilities from the Bureaucratic Clerk Model

If you have seen the movie Hidden Figures, you will remember that Katherine Johnson and her colleagues served as human “computers” because computers were not sophisticated enough to perform complex calculations. Later in the film, NASA acquires an IBM 7090 computer to replace its employees. The supervisor, Dorothy Vaughan, learns Fortran and teaches her employees to become computer programmers. I often cite this part of the film as a great example of reskilling your workforce to keep them employed and engaged.

As robotic process automation (RPA) and other artificial intelligence (AI) tools take on the routine clerical tasks, I introduced new training programs to help federal employees evolve their skills. Training programs include design thinking, emotional intelligence, process mining and design, team building through psychological safety and data analytics. The goal is to move beyond better-performing tasks in a process to designing and automating the processes. In the Biden-Harris PMA, I see a great opportunity in fulfilling both Priorities 1 and 2 through reimagining federal government workers as product managers. Or at least teaching federal employees the skills of product management.

Why Product Management Training for Federal Employees?

Product management is the process of building products and services with a laser focus on the customer’s needs and concerns. “To build the best possible product, product managers advocate for customers within the organization and make sure the voice of the market is heard and heeded.” The essential skills to be a good product manager are design thinking (emphasizing empathy), customer experience/user experience design, data science, team building and marketing.

Most federal employees are engaged in directly delivering government service or supporting government employees who provide services. Empowering government employees to move from clerks to owning, managing and designing the process will make a better employee experience for federal government workers while providing a better customer experience for American citizens.

Author: Bill Brantley teaches at the University of Louisville and the University of Maryland. He also works as a Federal employee for the U.S. Navy’s Inspector General Office. All opinions are his own and do not reflect the views of his employers. You can reach him at http://billbrantley.com.

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