Q&A: How do I make myself more suitable for a senior product role in UK government?

Here’s a question I’ve been asked recently:

Hi Jock,

I’d appreciate your advice on working for the GDS and different ministries. I have recently applied for senior positions (Deputy Director and Head of Product) at GDS and another UK government department.

On both occasions I was told that while I had the skills, my previous products had not been used by the millions of users, rather the hundreds of thousands, and therefore I was not considered the right person for the role.

This seems unusual given that building for 6 figure as oppose to 7 figure usage would not make that much difference in my opinion.

Could you recommend anything I could do to improve my suitability for next time a role like that comes available?

Many thanks,


Read on for my reply.

Hi D,

I can’t comment on the specific reasons why you’d have been rejected for the roles you applied for as I wasn’t part of that particular process.

However, I did a fair amount of interviewing both at MOJ Digital and GDS while I was head of product at each, so a bit of feedback based on my reading of your background from your LinkedIn profile and comments.

First off, I would suggest that you’re aiming for too senior positions given your background and relevant experience. Deputy Director is one of the most senior and politically-charged positions in a government department or agency, so you would really need several years of board-level experience as a director under your belt before being considered seriously.

Secondly, as an interviewer, I would suggest that there is, in fact, a significant difference in building for millions (and tens of millions) versus hundreds of thousands of users, and it would indicate a lack of experience to me when making such an assertion.

You have to remember that in the public sector, you don’t get to pick and choose the ‘best’ users to work with, you are obliged to ensure your products and services work for everyone, regardless of their ability or background. This makes creating a single service to meet very varied user needs particularly challenging.

There are also the more technical challenges of ensuring the service is robust, performs well and is secure at scale – which often means engineering for a significant factor of load above what would be considered normal usage. This could be because of unexpected spikes in interest from the public (the register to vote service before the last general election was a good example), or malicious DDoS attacks.

Either way, it’s not necessarily as straightforward as you seem to believe. My advice to you would be to apply for either senior or lead product manager roles. The remit and complexity of these roles within GDS would probably fit better with your experience. That’s speaking as someone who wrote the job specifications at GDS for both :-)

All the best,


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The Practitioner's Guide to Product Management by Jock Busuttil

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