Urban Innovation

We Failed, What’s Next? The Essential Question in Local Government

August 4, 2020  • Center for Urban Innovation & Jennifer Bradley

Imagine if, with the coronavirus tearing through our country and demands for racial justice ringing in our ears, we could not use the word “failure.” Imagine if we looked at what is happening before our eyes, in our streets, and in our families and said, “There is zero tolerance for failure in my community.” How could we ever begin to fix what is broken if we couldn’t be honest about the brokenness in the first place? 

A version of that crushing cognitive dissonance happens all the time in local government. People who work in local government say, over and over, on public panels and in private workshops, “Government can’t afford to fail,” or, “There is zero tolerance for failure in local government.” But at the same time, people who work in local government and people who depend on local government services know that government fails in small and large ways, from busted water fountains in public parks to squandered economic development efforts to police violence. Government failure has been a punchline (and punching bag) for decades, but the ethos of “no failure allowed” persists. The result is that big failures in the status quo get shrugged off until there is a catastrophic eruption, while small but high profile failures in the name of innovation get exposed and denigrated.  

It’s time to break that cycle, and be honest about failure in local government. Innovation depends on failure, and improvement depends on recognizing failure. Today, along with our friends and collaborators at the Centre for Public Impact, we are releasing, How to Fail (Forward): A Framework for Fostering Innovation in the Public Sector. The report delves deeply into how to acknowledge public sector failures and create a culture that enables governments to learn from mistakes and create better services and experiences for residents and government employees themselves. We’re discussing government innovation and failure in a webinar on August 6—you can register for it here.

I want to be very clear: People who work in government are tremendously talented, hard-working, committed, and innovative. Governments fail because they are tackling very hard problems with very few resources, in a rule-encumbered environment that is supposed to protect liberty, promote equality, allow for debate and dissent, and ensure fair treatment of workers and residents alike. That’s harder than fast shipping, multi-functional internet-connected watches, or a search algorithm that resists manipulation.  

Failures will happen in local government, because they happen in any complex system, and local government is mind-bogglingly complex. Local governments, starting with mayors and department heads, should create a culture that says, “We failed, so what’s next?” When we asked people who work in local government how to get comfortable identifying, talking about, understanding, and taking action on failure, they talked about building relationships and a climate of safety rather than “gotcha.” They asked for steps that sound simple but represent a sea change in local government, like all-department lunches and Q&As with the director, or connecting front line workers across departments. One of our recommendations in the report is for failure pizza parties. It may seem odd to think that we can fix big problems with pizza, but why not try to start there? The worst that could happen is… it fails. 

It is well past time to incorporate the universal human experience of failure into the deeply human endeavor of local government. We cannot divorce policy from humanity and expect good results. I’m not suggesting a casual embrace of local government mistakes that cost lives or do other irreparable harm. I am insisting that we start telling the truth about failure so that local government can fail more often and less catastrophically. 

If you have a compelling story about learning from failure in local government, please reach out to @AspenUrbanInnov on Twitter or email beth.semel@aspeninstitute.org.

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