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Product Management

While the work of government is commonly referred to as service — embodied in the terms ‘public service’ and ‘public servant’ — it’s the government-as-a-product mindset that is driving the future of truly innovative and effective civic organizations.

Product management helps us create services that people:

  • want to use
  • love using
  • seek out over other options
  • don't dread

Our product management framework — empowers City of San Rafael employees to solve everyday problems, big or small. This people-first, build-better-services mindset — aligns with our goal to make City services easy to use, and work for everyone

Product management is how companies create things that people want to use, love using, and seek out over their competitors. We want to bring some of those same practices into San Rafael’s government context, so that our service experiences are enjoyable, easy, and never things people dread having to do.

Product management is defined as “the overall process of strategy, organization, concept generation, product and marketing plan creation and evaluation, and commercialization of a new product.” As a professional discipline, Product management has with its own lexicon, framework, tools and industry organization. ‘Product management and society’ is now a course being taught at Harvard to aspiring civic leaders.

A product can be a service, process, report, policy, web application or website that satisfies the needs of a group of users. It goes through a life cycle, being developed and introduced on the market, grown and improved upon, and retired once it’s no longer needed. 

A project is a one-at-a-time endeavour with the goal of creating a product. It has a start and end date, as well as a defined outcome.

Product (Strategic) Project (Tactical)
  • Talk to users to gather info and requirements
  • Identify problems and opportunities
  • Define features
  • Know when a product is ready to move from alpha to beta testing
  • Know when to kill a product
  • Develop project timeline
  • Spot and minimize issues early
  • Assign tasks and deadlines
  • Manage task lists, materials, reports, and people to provide project team with their needs
  • Bring project to completion 

Product management in government has been adopted globally, from national digital services organizations like the U.S. Digital Service, 18F and the UK Government Digital Service to cities large and small.

In the context of product management, the City of San Rafael has numerous products of its own, from the fire department’s vegetation management program to human resources’ recruitment process.

San Rafael product examples
  • Pay a parking ticket
  • Get your street swept
  • Sign a trespass letter
  • Get a building permit
  • Attend a public meeting
  • Get a public record
  • Register for a class
  • Buy a swim pass
  • Report a pothole
  • Get a business license
  • Borrow a book
  • Get information about…
  • Buy a parking pass
  • And many, many more!

By applying a product mindset to our services, we can better align our efforts and investments to the City’s overall mission and make sure that what we do is designed for people who need to use them. This process requires getting feedback and input from the community (or internally, employees), analyzing the approaches of other cities or agencies, and applying the process of iteration and continuous improvement so that our services get better and evolve over time.

Every department has multiple products that, if managed within a product management framework, can help the city better serve its community, but also bring a stronger sense of pride and ownership to the work of everyone who works for the people of San Rafael.

It can be easy for resource-constrained, overworked government teams to fall into habit, simply executing existing — sometimes dated — programs without holistically and continuously analyzing their effectiveness. At times, the success metric for service value is misunderstood or misaligned.

“We must always keep a focus on the value we are delivering to the public,” writes Jennifer Malcolm, U.S. Department of the Interior. “I want to do my best for the American citizens we serve, and learning more about product management has helped me develop strategies to do that.”

“Public services and features of public services in which value is measured by outcomes for users are places where product management is value,”  Product management handbook for government digital services, UK Government Ministry Head of Product Justice Scott Colfer.


Dive a little deeper into how it works.

Over the past several years, the City of San Rafael has been working to re-imagine  workplace culture through the Together San Rafael initiative. The Together San Rafael guiding principles provide a philosophical foundation for this cultural transformation, and the product management framework help put these principles into action.

Guiding Principles

Product management puts the user, or customer, at the center of how we design our services with the goal of creating an exceptional experience for that person. It requires openness, a commitment to learning, and seeks to solve the root problem.

The Together San Rafael Learning Lab is a learn-by-doing training program where cross-departmental teams apply human-centered design to work challenges. Through this program, employees practice product management in developing problem statements, conducting user research and making iterations to solutions based on user feedback. The first generation of the Learning Lab program emphasized the education of human-centered design. As an increasing number of employees gain a better understanding of human-centered design and apply it to their work, the next generation of Learning Labs will build on the success of the first two labs and include Product Management education in an effort to help bake the concept into employee culture.

The Department of Digital Service & Open Government’s strategic framework identifies product management as a key element to how the department will achieve its service design goals. The practice of product management will play a critical role in the department’s overall purpose to make city services easy to use, and work for everyone.

“Traditionally, government has been very good at declaring success at the end of a project even if ‘success’ just means ‘done.’ Instead, we need to get better at iterating and improving the product as we go along so that ‘success’ means measurably adding value to our mission.
Jim Schutz, San Rafael City Manager

Our product-minded government empowers City staff to solve everyday problems by putting the principles of human-centered design and Together San Rafael into practice.

The shift in perspective to "Government as a Product" doesn’t de-emphasize the mission-critical purpose and intent of government. Instead, Product Management provides a structured process that will enable the City of San Rafael to constantly focus on the people it serves by putting user needs first, trying new ideas, and adapting for success.

Fundamentally, product management is concerned with asking — and providing good answers to — these four questions:

  • What is the problem we’re solving (and why does it matter?)
  • What will our impact be?
  • How are we doing it?
  • Is our solution good?
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