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The separation of [product] powers

Oct. 16, 2018 | 652 Words | 4-minute read

“But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?” James Madison, Federalist #51

The Digital Services Playbook lists a “key play” as having a single accountable product owner for the delivery of a product. Specifically, it declares that you must “Assign one leader and hold that person accountable.” Here’s the rest:

There must be a single product owner who has the authority and responsibility to assign tasks and work elements; make business, product, and technical decisions; and be accountable for the success or failure of the overall service. This product owner is ultimately responsible for how well the service meets needs of its users, which is how a service should be evaluated. The product owner is responsible for ensuring that features are built and managing the feature and bug backlogs.

This is a best practice for product management. Although I will elide questions about “product management versus product ownership” and “what is the proper role of a product person,” it is sufficient to state that having someone in charge of championing a product vision is key.

Unfortunately, government rarely works this way; instead, our government’s emphasis on separation of power leads to distributed responsibility and diffuse accountability. I’ve found that what can be most confounding to folks who are new to government — and can stymie those who are not — is that decision-making in government is typically intentionally decentralized and distributed horizontally among internal organizations with competing motivations. Making the chess board more dimensional, as James Wilson has explained, government decision-making is also vertically distributed within the organizational, and the motivations and behaviors within a chain of command depend on the actor’s level within it.

grayscale photography of chess board game by rawpixel on Unsplash

grayscale photography of chess board game by rawpixel on Unsplash

To some, this can be frustrating. To others, it’s a bulwark against corruption. Whatever you may think, it’s a ground-truth reality. Effective product management anywhere is hard. In government, effective product management is next-level hard. And yet, if you can grok the motivations of the institutional and individual actors and find a path, you can deliver excellent results. The first step, though, is acknowledging the situation.

In future posts, I plan to document some of the motivations and roles of the many different actors in government contracting. But for now, I’ll list a few of the executive-level roles involved in any major government contract of consequence:

  • Program-level executive (e.g., Assistant Secretary)
  • Chief Information Officer (who sometimes reports directly to the top of the agency, but more often to a Deputy Secretary)
  • Chief Financial Officer
  • Senior Procurement Executive (in some agencies, the Chief Acquisition Officer)
  • General Counsel

This doesn’t even get into the normal circumstance with matching levels of components within an agency and the distributed powers within that agency (e.g., Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services within the Department of Health & Human Services). It also doesn’t get into some of the harder divides within a program (e.g., separation of “policy” from “operational” chains of command).

This organizational complexity — while not totally unique to government — creates unique challenges because it is not susceptible to executive-level mandate or fiat. Unlike a corporate CEO, an agency director is limited in her ability to direct lower-level decision-making, because (for example) she is more constrained by laws, regulations, and budgets established by legislative bodies. The typical agency director (and those who report to her) also faces the unenviable task of trying to achieve multiple, competing, and fixed organizational goals that are beyond her ability to change.

Fortunately, just as with human nature, there are observable patterns within government and there are methods to work within constraints. When shaping a sound strategy with government, therefore, it is essential to know where to start and how to manage the approach. Even executing a “play” as simple as assigning a single product owner requires understanding the government chess board and the allowable moves on that board.

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