I’ve recently been working for MOJ Digital at the Ministry of Justice as their interim head of product. They asked me to join as a professional coach and mentor to the team of product managers building digital services there. It soon became clear that there was plenty more I could do to help.
Whenever I work with a client, there’s often some aspect of hiring involved. Sometimes I’m helping an organisation to find their first product manager. Their challenge is often that it’s difficult for them to find a good product manager when they’re not entirely clear what one does. So I give them a steer by acting as their product manager for a few months. I also help them craft their job description and interviewing their candidates.
When I succeed in finding them a decent product manager, I hand over responsibilities and move into a coaching role if needed. And in doing so, I make myself redundant, which strangely feels quite satisfying.
In the case of MOJ Digital, I’ve had a slightly different challenge. For starters, they have an extremely clear idea of what a good product manager looks like.
At any given point in time, there are typically ten (for round numbers) digital services under active development. As each is essentially new, there’s typically a lot to learn about the user need, context and any potential legacy systems the service may need to talk to. For this reason, there’s more than enough to keep an experienced product manager busy. So for ten digital services, we have ten product managers.
MOJ Digital has been in existence for just under three years. At its outset, it needed a critical mass of experienced and user-centric makers, who could hold their own against the prevailing government approach of running large, complex and wasteful IT projects. Achieving early success was the key to earning permission to continue, grow and improve more services.
Simply put, not so long ago, there were many professions – including product management – that simply didn’t exist in the Ministry of Justice, so people with these skills had to come in from outside. Some came from Government Digital Service (GDS), the template for the new digital services being established in many government departments. The rest needed to be recruited. With a slow, bureaucratic hiring process, MOJ Digital opted to bring in contractors to keep the pace of progress rapid.
This is why most of our product managers – including myself – are contractors, rather than permanent civil servants. Well, so far at least.
Two and a half years later, MOJ Digital and the Office of the Public Guardian’s (OPG) digital service have delivered all four of our exemplars, and many other digital services. We’ve proven we can deliver meaningful services that improve the way the public interacts with the justice system.
Now we need change gears. It’s much easier these days for us to show our approach works now we have live digital services achieving high levels of user satisfaction and cost savings. Our focus now needs on longevity – ensuring that these new digital skills and professions become embedded in the civil service, allowing it to continue this work without having to rely so heavily on the expertise of contractors.
For product management, this means two approaches in parallel. The first is to attract and recruit experienced professionals into the civil service. The second is to find civil servants with the aptitude and interest to learn a digital profession, and equip them with the training they need to work in this new way.
I was thrilled with the response to my recent article about working as a product manager at MOJ Digital. Over forty candidates applied for civil servant positions in the product team as a result. We’re clearly attracting talented people both from within the civil service and from the private sector.
But we’re not done yet – far from it. We’re hiring for fifteen different job roles, including product managers and even my role as head of product.
Come and have a chat with us at Silicon Milkroundabout on 9th and 10th May to see what we’re all about. You might even help to make me redundant.