How Do We Fail Forward? Three key themes from the first Reimagining Government 2021 webinar

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  • Published Date: 20 April 2021

As part of our response to the challenges of COVID-19, and our mission to inspire public sector leaders with the latest insights and thinking, ANZSOG partnered with the Centre for Public Impact in 2020 to produce Reimagining Government – a series of webinars which brought together senior practitioners, academics and leading thinkers from across the globe.

This series was part of the global conversation on what we learnt from COVID-19 and how governments could and should change as a result of those lessons. It was used by the OECD as part of their ‘Government After Shock’ event in November 2020.

Reimagining Government has returned for 2021, with four new webinars exploring how governments can become more innovative and responsive to the complex challenges of the 21st century.

In the first instalment of the 2021 Reimagining Government series, ANZSOG and CPI hosted an interactive webinar focused on the need to create a culture that learns from failure. The panel was facilitated by Dr Subho Banerjee, Deputy CEO, Research and Advisory, ANZSOG, and included Andrea Mirviss, Program Manager at the Centre for Public Impact; Professor Peter Shergold AC, Chancellor of Western Sydney University and former Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet; and Tina Walha, Director, Innovation & Performance at the City of Seattle.

The challenges facing governments are complex, and often have no simple or permanent solutions. The panel discussed the value of shifting to operating models of government that are not just more tolerant of mistakes and failure but use them to cultivate a culture of learning and improvement.

Given the culture and structures of government, with its sea of inquiries, committees and reporting mechanisms - embracing failure is often easier said than done. Public managers understand the need to experiment and take risks, but do the infrastructures, processes and cultures that currently make up our government really support the experimentation that’s needed in a complex environment?

It’s a problem that seems especially difficult for the public sector. Ms Walha used the example of the iPhone, where the public expected and tolerated failure, understanding it was all part of a cycle of constant improvement.

“We don’t have the same expectation of governments constantly experimenting, iterating and failing along the way,” she said.

Our current political system and public perception of government failure mean government ministers have a lowered risk tolerance, not wanting to face public scrutiny or be removed from office because of a failure.

This culture of risk aversion has drastic consequences, however. “Mistakes build on each other,” Ms Mirviss said.

“The cultures that make it hard to talk about small failures are the same cultures that lead to massive disasters, and systemic failures of government, because we don't have the cultures that enable us to have hard conversations.”

Changing process and cultures to benefit from failure

The debate also focused on examining the infrastructures, processes and cultures that currently make up our government and how they could better support the experimentation that’s needed in a complex environment.

The problems governments face are big and complex. Because of that complexity, governments can never get a program of work ‘right’ on the first try - it’s a continuous loop of starting small, learning and adapting what’s needed to stay relevant and achieve good outcomes.

“The bigger you think, the smaller you start,” Professor Shergold said.

But he said starting small has not been something that comes naturally to government, and that when public managers did not receive funding for a new program, there was a tendency to call it a “demonstration project,” simply to receive funding. However, this “demonstration project” could simply be a crude or scaled-back version of the original project - there was no piloting in unique communities, constant evaluation, or pivoting of approaches.

To start small, you need to overcome perceptions of failure in government, and so normalising the “F word” is key. In her work in Seattle, Ms Walha said she would always make sure to weave in stories about failure when talking about her team’s successes.

Ms Mirviss pointed to Boston’s Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics, a civic incubator. Because the Office was known for being highly experimental and innovative, departments they partnered with were more tolerant of programmatic risk. Here, carving out a distinct space for experimentation was a crucial first step to normalising failure.

She said good leaders want to drive change, and so it was crucial to support leaders with controlled experimentation, as well as supportive narratives.

COVID-19 and a call to action

Embracing failure and trying new things has been a requirement for governments during the COVID-19 pandemic. Think about how much we know about COVID-19 now, but how little we knew a year ago, as governments had to scramble to make decisions on border control, shutdowns and masks. Limited information - coupled with new ways of working - practically ensured governments would fail, but there are countless examples of innovation and failing forward throughout the world.

Ms Mirviss said that officials in Little Rock, Arkansas, had effectively ‘failed forward’ during COVID-19. During the pandemic, officials had to ensure an accurate census count. They could no longer doorknock, so had to think outside the box. After consulting with locals, they moved to other places of congregation, such as food distribution centres. Whilst these approaches may seem intuitive, they were much harder for governments before the pandemic - long-standing protocol would always have to be followed.

Similarly, in Seattle failing forward has “been the name of the game”. Ms Walha’s teams had to have a “shared mental model” in not knowing if initiatives would fail or succeed but learning from them all the same.

“My worry is that as folks get vaccinated, transmission goes down, and we return to normal - that our new normal will not include passion for and necessity for experimentation,” she said.

It’s important that we continue to bring those on the frontlines into the backrooms of public servants after COVID-19, continue to engage experts and community alike in program development and rollout, and continually learn and adapt.

The panel said that as we address the scalability of failing forward after COVID-19, it will be important to codify initiatives - successes and failures alike.

“There's no point in rebuilding a ship if you already know what the flaws are,” Ms Mirviss said. She encouraged teams to set out lessons learned and drivers of successes and failures in playbooks, but also stressed the need for different programs of innovation to be specific to local context.

Professor Shergold concluded the webinar with a Māori proverb - a reminder of the need to constantly learn from failure, start small and shift towards action: “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”

For more information on upcoming Reimagining Government webinars including ‘Learning to Listen Again’ on 13 May click here. For resources including interviews and background articles on the theme of ‘Failing Forward’ visit the Reimagining Government Content Hub.