Legislation + Product Management

It’s been five years since I first scrubbed in and started working on government problems. One of my early impactful experiences after moving to DC for a year in 2017 was taking a walk next to the White House with my friend Natalie and talking about the 21st Century Cures Act. In that huge piece of legislation, the words “Application Programming Interfaces (APIs)” are referenced a handful of times, a very important signal for government agencies and the healthcare industry to progress into a more interoperable existence. At that time, I didn’t have a clue about policy-making, the legislative process or regulation but soon came to understand the intersection of policy and product management is a fascinating place to work for a product manager and a core product muscle to develop.

In this space where policy and product meet, a product manager can find themselves helping write policy, implement policy or being subject to policy.


  • Writing policy – helping advise policymakers at a Federal agency, Congress or State Legislature on specific technical things or approaches. Ex: CMS Interoperability and Patient Access Rule
  • Implementing policy – building software, websites and new teams to help a government agency implement some new legislation or regulation. Ex: Medicaid member experience, Paid Family and Medical Leave, Unemployment Insurance, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, etc.
  • Subject to policy – designing new product features for your business based on opportunities or requirements policy creates. Health data interoperability, privacy, crypto regulation, grant funding opportunities, etc.

For this post, let’s focus on Implementing policy.

How a Product Manager should think about Implementing Policy

Today, big pieces are legislation are treated as requirements documents in which different requirements are usually delegated out to various government agencies to implement. For example, in the recently enacted Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), there are approximately 14 agencies responsible for 375 programs that will carry out provisions of the bill.

But…before going into implementing legislation as a product manager, a quick primer on the structure of legislation like the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA).

The Structure of Legislation

The legislation is called an “Act”. Within the Act, there are divisions, titles and subtitles that have many sections.

Each of these sections can have highly prescriptive or super vague direction. For example, on page 1182 of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) you’ll find a specific definition of “reliable broadband service”.

Often times, legislation is prescriptive as to how it should be implemented once passed. For example, the Colorado Paid Family and Medical Leave Insurance Act defines a new division be created within the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment to run the new program. 

For the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), an Executive Order immediately followed the passage of the bill which established a Task Force.

The process sometimes feels more like art than science and can vary widely across levels of government and the type of policy being created. For example, in both Federal and state governments, the legislature (Congress) makes laws but federal and state agencies can create regulation. To further codify how a piece of legislation should be implemented, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) may issue guidance to agencies that have “statutory responsibilities”. As you can see from this IIJA guidance from OMB, it further defines how everyone should coordinate with each other across government.

Products created by Legislation

Ok, now that you have a sense of the structure of a big piece of legislation, let’s talk about the products the signing of a new bill or publishing of a new regulation may hatch.

Imagine you are a product manager in the government tapped to work on implementing a new policy. Not unlike most products you’ve likely worked on, there is some type of vision or high-level goals (probably spelled out in the legislative text) and will likely need a website, community building, customer success and internal dashboards.


A piece of legislation and accompanying guidance will likely have a lifespan of a decade or longer. During these many years, state and local governments, territories, Tribal nations, non-profits, businesses, media and others will be learning about the bill. It is important to establish a source of truth for ongoing communication about the bill as the legislative text, once passed, is static on congress.gov.

For example, for Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), the website Build.gov was created to provide a home for information about the programs that span infrastructure themes such as broadband, water and transportation. A PDF guidebook was also created that summarizes each of the programs. This website is just one web property in an ecosystem that includes:

  • Build.gov – summarizes the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), PDF guidebook, searchable program inventory.
  • Grants.gov – the application process for many of the grant programs funded by IIJA.
  • Agency Program webpages – program specific information including application eligibility, notice of funding opportunities (NOFOs) and technical assistance. Ex: Bus and Bus Facilities Program from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA).
  • Sam.gov – detailed information about each program (call an “assistance listing” in grant-speak).

Along with websites, as a PM you’ll be engaging with secondary sources of information, typically local and national media coverage as well as webinars, infographics and white papers put out by hundreds of associations and consulting or lobbying firms.

OKRs and Dashboards

A variety of data products such as dashboards, shared datasets and more are required to coordinate across agencies and manage a large piece of legislation effectively.

Usually, in artifacts that support the legislation or in the bill text itself, you’ll find some type of guidance or direction about how outcomes and impact should be measured. For example, in the IIJA Executive Order, priorities were defined. This means there also needs to be a way to measure and report on these priorities…which means data and dashboards.

Beyond using data to inform decision-making of the policy implementation, oversight needs to be considered from day one.  Reports to Congress and readouts with stakeholders are important for PMs to consider.

(Map showing bipartisan infrastructure bill funding)

Web apps

For legislation that directs funding, usually to state, local, territorial and Tribal governments or non-profits, some type of reporting from those entities back to the Federal government is required, which means you’re likely building a web app. As conditions change, these reporting and compliance requirements also evolve. As a PM, you need to be thinking about a reporting and compliance user experience that is easy for funding recipients. As I’ve talked with folks in all levels of government about grant funding specifically, reporting and compliance burden is always a complaint, especially for small governments without big teams to handle this.

Web apps to support legislation are tricky because many of them have been built in the past to support a variety of different types of legislation and the user experiences have been less than great. So, as a PM, you need to embrace the learnings from these teams and try and avoid building the next web app that most users don’t really like.

Another category of web apps you may find yourself building as a PM helping to launch new legislation are web apps that support some type of functionality required by the policy. In this example, the Quality Payments Program from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) supports regulation that requires healthcare providers to upload information via a website or integrate with an API.

Delivery Teams

New policy usually means new delivery teams are needed to build the websites, dashboards and web apps to support the policy. Depending on which government agency or agencies are tasked with implementing legislation, they may not have an operating budget to procure a software delivery team, purchase cloud infrastructure, run sophisticated digital marketing campaigns, and so on. For example, the White House and State Governor’s Offices are examples of structures that don’t have a ton of capacity to ship software versus Federal or state agencies who have a huge portfolio of software products, existing devops processes and cloud infrastructure, cyber security policies, etc etc. In most cases, having the delivery live within an agency of a shared services group like the Office of Information Technology is the preferred path.

As you get started as a PM on a new policy, regulation or legislation, work hard to get clarity on how the delivery teams will be structured. This will be hard as there’s a lot at stake and a ton of pressure to move fast.


Over these five years in government, one of the things that caused me to fall in love with this work is the sheer reach of it all. New legislation, policy or regulation has the potential to change an industry or impact millions of people.

This is also a space where I’ve seen firsthand the impact of “software is eating government” (a remix of the phrase coined by Marc Andreessen, the founder of Netscape). Software has begun to permeate every aspect of our lives and is fundamentally changing business models. We cannot afford to ignore technology as we deliver government services, this includes upstream in the policy-making process.

It’s a really good sign if you, the product manager, are part of the team tasked with implementing a new policy. When done right, your expertise in user experience, software development and product design combined with the brilliance and experience of the policy wonks and government experts has the potential to delivery something truly special.

Concept Videos for Product Managers

I wrote about how Product Managers can use screencasts to tell their story here. A similar technique is to create a concept video that combines screencasts and stock photography  footage to tell the story of your product vision. Not a novel concept, but here’s how I’ve been doing it.

Example: Wonk.AI

When I was living in Washington, DC, I’d take the Metro every morning to the Farragut North stop, the station for K Street (all the lobbyists) and the White House (all of the policy wonks, technologists and political folks that work in the White House complex). I was surrounded by some serious brain power and would daydream about an idea for scaling and automating knowledge I’d call Wonk.AI.

I came up with a simple value statement:

Wonk.ai is software as a service that helps you get smarter about the ideas, policy and people important to the work you are doing.

…and filled Moleskin notebooks and Evernote with ideas. For months I worked on this idea nights and weekends. I talked to my wife about it over dinner and ran ideas by friends to get their reactions.

Start Making Something

This Rework podcast episode describes ways to start actually building on your idea and breaking out of the daydreaming/note taking phase.

For Wonk.AI, I used Balsamiq Mockups to create some low-fidelity mockups originally drawn in my notebook. Next, I used TypeForm to create a simple onboarding experience and setup the wonk.ai domain to redirect. This gave me something I could send to friends to get a different kind of feedback. Did anyone actually play with it? Of those that did, what data did they input that would help me better understand how they would use Wonk.AI if it was a real product.

Creating a Concept Video

The mockups and simple form prototype was fun and positive, but didn’t tell the story about why I was obsessing over this idea. I noticed Screenflow has added a stock photography library and I decided on a whim to buy it.

I wrote a short script that combined the Wonk.AI value prop with a few use cases and some aspirational ideas then used Quicktime to record the audio. I brought that into Screenflow then recorded a quick screencast of the Typeform proto. Then, I filled in the gaps with a bunch of stock photography video clips.

Here’s the concept video. As you can see, it’s part cheese, part product vision, and part feature ideas.

Once I had this built, I published to Vimeo and set as a private link. I sent it around to a few VCs and other product folks I respected to get their feedback and further refine my thinking.

Ultimately for Wonk.AI, I wasn’t ready to throw everything I had at building it. The concept video was an important step to telling the story, getting feedback and getting from daydream to reality helping me decide on a path forward.

Product Management Tools

One of the themes I’ve seen working as a Product Manager in big enterprises like IBM Watson, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and the State of Colorado, is a lack of tools that help Product Managers plan.  Yes, these orgs have Jira or Azure DevOps to help organize agile software delivery and Google docs or Confluence to serve as the document repository, but when it comes to strategy, planning and product roadmaps, it tends to revert back to docs and powerpoint.

Whether in the beginning stages of a project where the team is still being formed, budget requests are being put together and procurement is the next step or in the middle of working on a years old mature product heavy in technical debt with power users, the work for the Product Manager is the same.  They need to drive the vision of what the product is aspiring to create, they need to describe the product, they need to talk about how product success will be measured and ultimately how the product benefits the agency and people within the community the agency is serving.

There are now SaaS tools specifically designed for Product Managers like Prodpad and Aha! or templates designed for PMs in Confluence.  Adding this to your team helps formalize the product management planning process by giving your PM and team a way to add ideas, elaborate on these ideas over time, prioritize and attribute value to personas, understand impact versus effort and more.  This is the world a PM lives in everyday outside of the agile software delivery activities like user stories, testing and devops.  Because these PM tools integrate with agile software delivery tools like Jira, PivotalTracker, Azure Devops, etc, the hard work done by the PM is pushed into the dev tools when and only when, the time is right.  

Appreciate the processes Product Managers, UX Designers and Product Owners go through to deeply understand what users need and support them with the right tools.

Good luck!

Medicaid Blue Button for States

States don’t need their own API sandboxes, code samples or developer support to enable 3rd party developers to adopt the new Medicaid APIs required by the CMS Interoperability and Patient Access Rule.

The rule basically says each state Medicaid plan (and many other types of plans) needs to “build their own Blue Button API” as many state health IT people say.`

I was part of the team that built the CMS Blue Button API. We had to do a few things:

  1. Map claims data to FHIR, setup a FHIR server, build an auth service, setup an API gateway
  2. Build a developer portal with a sandbox, docs, sample apps, production API access process and more.
  3. Procure the project in a way there was long-term investment in continuous improvement to the infrastructure, APIs and developer experience.

My friend Sam’s blog post Building your own Claims API from 2018 is a great read to better understand what our CMS team did and you’ll have to do for your state.

Because all states will be using the FHIR and OAuth standards, all of their APIs should be pretty much the same. This is super important because it means that states shouldn’t build their own sandboxes, docs or sample apps.

Let’s build a coalition

A group of states and organizations should get together and build an API sandbox. This will give developers a chance to play around with the APIs and prototype them into their own apps.

There should be a github site with a bunch of sample apps or build on CMS’s github along with more tutorials like Install an Angular Client App.

I’m looking forward to seeing what thought-leaders like the CARIN Alliance, CMS, vendors and states will do to bring people together here. Sharing things like a Blue Button sandbox will save taxpayer dollars and accelerate time-to-market for most states.

Happy Building!

How a Civil Servant ends up building APIs

One of my favorite stories from my time in Washington, D.C. came from a dedicated civil servant who became one of my closest friends and colleagues at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid.

With a background in public health and a passion to help people, she joined CMS 25 years ago. Over time, the policies and programs she was working on needed websites. As she took on more and more responsibility and began managing these programs, the websites now needed to allow people to login…and be discoverable on Google…and have web analytics…and conform to design guidelines…etc etc. She found herself learning about agile software development and using github.

Today, these same policies and programs now have APIs and all of the complexities that come along with building and operating APIs such as developer portals, key management, new security risks and developer evangelism to drive the adoption of these APIs.

When I asked my friend what her proudest moment has been at CMS she told me a story about helping get lead paint out of houses with kids in Baltimore. It is the impact that drives her, not the tech. She didn’t grow up coding in her parents’ basement or have fond memories of the first app she built. As Marc Andreesson says “software is eating the world” and this is so very true for government programs and the dedicated civil servants that run them.

By the way, the US Digital Service is always hiring.

The “Tim” story

I had the chance to work on a discovery sprint recently. During this two-week sprint, I revisited a bunch of agile delivery fundamentals in a way I haven’t in a long time. The project was suffering from some of the great, classic mistakes of software delivery we all know and love such as working in silos, internal politics, inability to deliver anything into production, finger pointing, comments like “we tried agile and it didn’t work” and so on.

Our discovery sprint team started using an example we called the “Tim” story. Tim is one of the executives in charge of the project.

After doing twenty user interviews, looking at code and reading a business case and other artificacts, one of our findings was the project was using a waterfall approach to manage a project with complex business rules, an ERP system. The team would talk about insufficient requirements and failing tests. Everyone was blaming each other.

Our recommendation was for Tim to be migrated out of the old system into the simpliest version of the new system that could be deployed to production. Because the team were working in silos, they had accomplished a great deal in their own silo but nothing worked together thus zero business value had been delivered in two years of working on the project.

Tim would receive his paycheck from the new system and if that failed, he could receive a handwritten paper check, bugs would be fixed and we’d try again two weeks later. Because Tim as an employee is one of the simplest payroll scenarios, the salaried employee with no special circumstances, we described this to the team as “the happy path”. Once Tim was being successfully paid by the new system, the entire management team working on parts of this project would be migrated. This is a way to deliver small iterative value while also demonstrating how committed the executives and team members are to the effort.

Now, a lot needs to happen before Tim can get his first paycheck. The system needs to be deployed to production, how a single employee is migrated from the old system to the new system needs to be understood, there needs to be confidence in the basic security of the production system and more.

As additional groups are migrated, the complexity will increase. For example, an employee that is working two different jobs with overtime and several dependents. They split their paycheck into several bank accounts and had previously worked at the company, quit and has now returned to their old job.

The team should take these complex use cases that the new system needs to support, focus on them as a team one-by-one and see success. They should continue in this “continuous improvement” phase of the project as new groups of employees are onboarded.


Now, contrast the “Tim” story with the project team’s current way of working. For over two years the team has been assembling a complex list of never-ending requirements aspiring to a place where “we have all the requirements” (unrealistic) and “we have confidence the system works for all HR and payroll complexities” (impossible) and “then we can do a big bang cutover to the new system” (dangerous).

When our discovery sprint team talked about the happy path versus waterfall big bang approach in our readout it resonated with the whole team. You saw head nods from non-technical folks, agreement and understanding from Tim and validation from others saying things like “We tried 5 test cases six months ago and they all failed but they were our most complex payroll scenarios involving overtime pay, employees working two jobs and more. We never thought to start simple. This totally makes sense.”

In past products I’ve worked on, I’d tell a very similar story about “how we can take the first $1.” Executives would often scoff at this and talk about how we need to support millons of dollars of revenue and get inpatient. However, it’s powerful. Understanding the first simple flow, the happy path, the MVP, etc is still a great thing to lean on if you are trying to help unstick a giant enterprise project or working on your next small startup.

Creating Momentum in Product Management

As a Product Manager, shipping and launching are always on my mind. Here are a few techniques I’ve used over the years to create momentum and keep the team excited about making progress and aligned on our ship dates and goals.

The big conference launch
I don’t love the “hit a date” tactics in product management but have used a big conference launch to generate steam successfully a few times. We did this with the launch of the CMS Blue Button API last year. When you have a big opportunity to generate press, attention and a bunch of new users / customers, it’s worth it. If you take this approach, make sure it’s a team decision and be ready to compromise a lot to get things shipped so you hit the date. You need to fundamentally appreciate how much teams hate having a date dictated to them and be an equal member in the quest. You are in this together. Also, be ready for tons of other non-software type work like doing press, building conference materials and being in a bunch of meetings making the various executives and stakeholders feel comfortable that the launch is on track.

Iterating towards the big vision
I know agile development is all about shipping working software, incremental pieces of the big vision. Sometimes it’s hard to get this train rolling. One of the approaches I’ve used a lot is getting the basic deployment pipeline setup early to deploy “hello world”. Once this is going, don’t be afraid to deploy tiny pieces. It will gradually build momentum.

If your product is stuck in some frustrating planning or architecture phase, try to find a way to keep moving forward. Can’t decide on a complex architecture? Try shipping a super simple user survey you can circulate around. How about shipping a basic piece of plumbing you are sure will be used in the product. Especially in the enterprise, my experience has been this really matters. Go a few cycles without shipping anything and the team will slow down to a crawl and morale drops. You’ll be having conference calls to plan the next conference call.

Intrinsic motivation meets good product goals
Luckily, most of the teams I’ve worked on over the years have a common understanding of the product goals and are motivated as hell to see the vision realized. In this environment, a PM needs to clearly articulate the goals and talk about how they are realized over time to give the team a good sense of the road ahead. If the team stalls, it’s usually the PM’s fault. Some decision is not being made and the path forward is not clear for the team to execute.

Good luck in 2019, I hope you build amazing things for people. As a PM, you know when the momentum isn’t there. Maybe you feel it yourself, the passion is gone and you aren’t obsessing about the product you’re building. Maybe the team feels broken and there are a million reasons why you can’t make progress. Hopefully if you find yourself in this state, you can use some of the techniques above to create momentum and ship!

Additional reading

The definition of “going live” – lessons from PivotDesk in 2012

Featured image from Undraw.

Screencasts for Product Managers

Screencasts are easy to build and a great way to convey information.  As a Product Manager, being awesome at communication is a big part of your job.  Can you tell a great story to customers?  Are you articulating the product roadmap to your company?

I have used screencasts to:

  • Demo a “Getting Started” experience on the website
  • Show off the product at a conference booth
  • Give product updates at Board Meetings
  • Describe the customer journey for a new product to team members
  • Help sales reps communicate with beta customers
  • Announce new product features on blog posts
My setup is:
My workflow to build a screencast is:
  1. Open Byword, type out a 1/2 page script (5 min)
  2. Grab scrap paper and pen, sketch a storyboard of the screencast (2 min)
  3. Plugin USB mic, open Quicktime Player and record the audio a few times to get the pace and tone of your voice sounding right (5 min)
  4. Open Screenflow, import the audio track. (1 min)
  5. In Screenflow, click record and capture video of your screen following along with the storyboard you sketched.  Do this a few times to get it perfect.  (5 min)
  6. In Screenflow, edit your screencast adding call outs, transitions and titles. (15 min)
  7. In Vimeo, go to Create / Music Store and search for an instrumental background track.  One you find one, download it and import into Screenflow.  Adjust volume levels of your voice track and the instrumental track. (10 min)
  8. Export your screencast to Vimeo (2 min)

Total time: 45 min


In Vimeo, there are a few helpful settings under “Privacy”:
  • password protect your video to share with a select group of people
  • set “where can this video be embedded” to “only on sites I choose” if you only want the video available within your app for example

I’ve used my iPhone to record a few seconds of people around the office, people in front of a whiteboard or monitor, etc.   If you are building a screencast to tell a customer story this can work well.  Plug your iPhone into your laptop and import the clip into Screenflow.


Further Reading

How Product Managers Can Mess Around With Open Datasets

Most Cities, States and Federal Agencies are working on some type of Open Data initiatives. The most common is an “Open Data Portal” that makes it easy to grab and use datasets:


Some cities are using Open Data to publish performance metrics like the Seattle Police Department or Louisville’s LouieStat.

Civic Leaders working on these initiatives cite promoting transparency in Government, improving performance and providing data for innovation as reasons why Open Data is so important.

As a Product Manager, it’s helpful to be familiar with what’s out there and how you can play around with these datasets to better understand how your product may benefit.

Before you dive into querying APIs, checkout a few of these projects to see the end result of building something with Open Data.

500 Cities Project

Ok, now let’s dig into some datasets you can play with.

Socrata’s Open Data Network
Socrata hosts over one hundred different data catalogs for governments, non-profits, and NGOs around the world. Checkout their Open Data Network where you can search for datasets.

For example, here’s a page about San Bernardino County Employment. Click “View API” to end up on a page giving you data and an API call you can paste into your browser or Postman.

Namara has organized a bunch of public datasets into a beautiful UI. Create a free account, sign in, create a new project then click Open Data in the left column to search and add datasets to your project. You can view the table data and manipulate it or call the data using their API.


In your project settings, you can generate an API key. Then, in each dataset you can click “API Info” and get the data_set_id and version_id.

You can use ProPublica to request data about Congress such as a list of Recent Bills and Member Voting records.


You’ll need to request an API key by emailing apihelp@propublica.org then pass that in the X-API-KEY header.

For example, to query Rep. Jared Polis’s voting record:

Open Data and the big IaaS Platforms

Another approach is to checkout Public Datasets baked into AWS, Google Cloud Platform and IBM Bluemix.

This is a great example of using Google BigQuery on NYC Public Datasets.

AWS hosts a bunch of Open Data in S3 buckets.

IBM, as part of the NOAA Big Data Project, has built an easy way to download tons of data.

Additional Reading

A few hashags to search around on are #govtech, #opendata, #opengovdataand #opengov. Follow people like @Josh_A_New, @JoshData, @DataInnovation, and the @SunFoundation.

Here are a few links related to Open Data policy and relevant news.

Some history on U.S. Federal Open Data Policy

DATA Act passed in 2014, America’s first open data law. It directs the federal government to transform all spending information into open data.

Conversation on the future of Open Data as Administrations change and the Preserving Government Data Act of 2017

The OPEN Government Data Act “directs all federal agencies to publish their information as machine-readable data, using searchable, open formats and requires every agency to maintain a centralized Enterprise Data Inventory that lists all data sets, and also mandates a centralized inventory for the whole government (data.gov)”.

Open Data 500 US is an interesting survey results showing what kinds of companies use which agencies’ data.

What I Want To See From Evernote in 2017

I have almost all of my strategic thinking, articles I’ve found useful and reference material in Evernote. Their browser extension works great as does their Mac, iPad and iPhone apps. I even have the WSJ integration enabled so I see relevant news with my Notes.

It’s time for Evernote to not only store my information, but really help me be smarter and better at everything I do.

I would happily opt-in to this feature giving them access to learn from my personal data as long as I had a mechanism to “mark Notes private” which would exclude them from Evernote’s Machine Learning activity.

Given a seed list of Notes or a Notebook, I want Evernote to help me:

  • Monitor important news and activity from Companies and People I’m interested in
  • Show me correlations and visualizations in my Note data so I can better connect the dots and broaden my context
  • Suggest actions I should take based on my Note data

Evernote knows the Companies, People and Topics I’m interested in. Their browser extension could contrast my browsing behavior and work style with what I save into Evernote to learn more about me. They know my travel habits based on where I save Notes and all of the travel data I store in Evernote. They know about my kid’s activities because of the receipts I save, they know the gift idea list I’m keep for my upcoming 15th wedding anniversary.

I want to build a list of Venture firms funding healthcare companies. I know that Mattermark and CB Insights have these by segment, but I want my own list and to apply my own logic. I want to understand all the people that work there and what they are talking about. I want to know about their investments. I want to know when people leave the companies. I want to dig deeper and see trends using visualizations, etc.

I have been to the Evernote conferences, think Phil Libin was a visionary leader (#selfie) there and continue to be a paid user of the product. I’m hoping 2017 is the year that the Evernote team blows my doors off.