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Failure: The Most Important, Undiscussed Element of Gov 2.0

I just experienced an embarrassing failure.

Or did I?

This afternoon, I was scheduled to appear by Skype to speak on the topic of Gov 2.0 leadership. Two hours prior to the event, the onsite tech guy and I tested the connection and it worked perfectly. We could see and hear one another and the screen share was beautiful. In fact, I could see Noel Dickover in the audience, we waved to one another and I shared a Max Headroom video with him since he said I kinda looked like the guy.

At 15 minutes before going live, we tried to connect again and the video and screen sharing functions just wouldn’t work. I was frustrated as was my new (and probably former) tech friend from Georgetown’s Woodrow Wilson Center.

We decided to conduct the presentation by audio only – kinda like a live podcast…or good ol’ fashioned conference call. I delivered my prepared remarks in about 15 minutes, then we engaged in some great dialogue, with the most interesting thoughts surrounding the issue of failure. Here was the impetus:

…no one expects a Gov 2.0 Leader to be infallible. In fact, in his keynote at the Open Government and Innovations conference, noted Web 2.0 visionary Tim O’Reilly indicated that government should encourage “safe failures.” Our new Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra echoed this idea at the same event when he said that “capturing data lets you measure when to fail fast, quit and stop putting money in bad projects.” Robynn Sturm of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy said that agencies should “Iterate. Try even if you fail. Keep changing.” For each of these individuals, the assumption was that failure IS an option and that it WILL happen. They seem to think that failure is inevitable. In fact, it’s an essential element of a more transparent, innovative government.

The primary questions with which we grappled:

How do we get government to embrace a culture of innovation without the possibility of failure? And how do create a culture where a degree of failure is accepted as part of the stretch toward excellence?

Jack Holt brought up the new book “If We Can Put a Man on the Moon” (featured here on GovLoop) as an example. What if we hadn’t made it to the moon? Would that have been a failure? Or would the innovation have inevitably sparked new technology that would benefit citizens regardless of whether we met that audacious goal?

What can we learn from companies like IDEO and 3M where failure is baked into the corporate ethos, where they create “skunk teams” that analyze failure (or the potential for failure) to see if they can tease out a morsel that becomes something magnificent?

My sense is that for all our talk about innovation and open government, none of it will really move forward until we come to terms with failure – how we feel about is agencies and how the taxpayer perceives failure by government.

So let’s do it. Let’s talk about it here:

1. When have you failed…and I mean a big ol’ mess going way beyond set targets of budget and time?

2. What happened? Who got canned or demoted? What changes were made (if any)?

3. Do you have examples of GOOD failure – where something awful occurred…then turned into what appeared to be a stroke of accidental brilliance?

4. What can we learn from the private sector?

5. How do we create a culture of innovation that accepts failure as part of a bold mission?

I didn’t have any good answers for the audience.

Is that a failure? I don’t think so.

I think that’s exactly the hallmark of a culture of innovation: asking questions, acting quickly on the best information available, examining options on the move and building the vessel while advancing the mission with ever-increasing velocity.

I think that’s exactly what happened in order to put a man on the moon – a clear target and a timeline and a team of smart, passionate people who knew failure was an option – who may have even expected it – yet forged ahead.

If we can put a man on the moon, maybe we can create a government culture that fosters such brave innovation.

SPECIAL NOTE: Brian Drake has a great post on this subject on his blog “The Green Dotted Line” and is organizing a Government 2.0 #Fail event to occur in the early part of 2010. So we’re moving toward a larger tribal discussion and maybe our conversation can be some of the initial fodder for that event.

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Doug Black

Andrew — you (and Brian Drake) have successfully identified one of the two big issues we don’t spend enough time talking about when we discuss Gov 2.0 (IT security concerns being the other big issue IMHO). We’ve talked about starting with small efforts and building on that effort’s success. How about starting with small efforts and talking about the lessons we learn from their failures?

Pam Broviak

In the last city where I worked about 16 years, citizens would scream and yell and criticize every thing about our operation that they perceived to be wrong. Most of the people complaining did not realize the rules and reasoning behind decisions or actions and didn’t care to hear or understand. They just decided we must have failed or were doing something the wrong way and therefore deserved to hear their unending criticism. In this particular community, there were also times the elected officials, for political reasons, did everything they could to prevent any growth or innovation.

When you are continually criticized and questioned even when you are not failing, but just when there is a perception of failing, you begin to be very careful about taking any risks or trying to innovate at all.

Fortunately the community I am working in now is much different and citizens are highly supportive of our local government. But even so, my past experience has left me somewhat hesitant to be too innovative with taxpayer monies.

So how do we promote innovation and risk in the type of communities where there is a chance to be fired, ridiculed, harassed, etc by citizens, the media, and elected officials?

James W. Chesnut

We’re not going to have a government that understands the value of failure until we have citizens who do. Most of us don’t like failure, won’t accept failure, live in denial of failure, etc. until we are forced to do so by circumstance. I agree completely that failure should be built into any plan, along with strategies to deal with it. Exit strategies from flawed policy are absolutely necessary. It is the essence of forgiveness.

Andrew Krzmarzick

Doug – I think you’re on point adding security to the mix…which is in many ways the cousin of failure here. If government fails via a security breach – and this was mentioned yesterday – people could lose their lives. That’s a failure that is never palatable to the public, not to mention the public servants who work hard to prevent such a tragedy.

Pam – You may be getting at another question – what is an “acceptable failure” to the public? On the community level, that answer differs from town to town, as you’ve highlighted. What is different about your new community? Historically, was there something that happened to foster greater trust and support by the people for their local government?

Jim – That may be the key – what happens if we DON’T innovate? Could it be that the failure that we’ll encounter if we don’t innovate is greater than the failure if we do? If so, we need to find a clear, compelling way to communicate that reality to citizens. Like a choose-your-own-adventure book: “pick path A or B and these are the potential outcomes.”

Bill Walden

Security should be the highest of worries, yet the easiest to resolve. We are fortunate to have so many who run beside (and even several steps ahead of) those infiltrating our securities. Kudos to those who have that knowledge! To incorporate Pam and Jim‘s comments, innovation is inevitable and WILL occur. Which agencies will use finances or tax payers as the excuse? Every agency should have someone on board that will EDUCATE on this subject. Any agency not engaged TODAY will continue to put that agency further behind the curve, therefore costing the agency more in the long run. Manor Labs is a great example: Population pushing 6k, pinched pennies, and the desire to move forward. Results have been shown with grids, hot-spots, unique “symbols” for their town, advanced technology, and pleased tax payers. Manor has its priorities set, MANY steps ahead of most other cities, and especially of that size! It is time for communities to begin seeing technology as infrastructure, not just a perk. Retrofits and “band-aids” cost more than failures. At least failures help us learn and public education is KEY!

Pam Broviak

As everyone points out there really is no choice in the end but to innovate and take risks – particularly now when we have diminishing staff and resources. There is no other way to continue to deliver services at acceptable levels. We must try new ways.

Bill mentioned the key to all this: education. If we required civic education (not just constitution-based education) in schools we would end up with communities of people who really understand how government works and their responsibilities as citizens.

For the government sector in which I work, public works, failures can result in loss of life and property, not just money, so we must be extra careful about taking risks. And people have much less tolerance for failure in these areas, as would be expected.


I think everyone should be required to read group genius every six months to refresh our memories of great success that only happen after systematic trial and error. No great human achievement in a single field has been accomplished without a series of systematic disregards of bad/failed ideas. thus, it is not failure, just ideas that didn’t work because it takes lots of those before the right is found, tried, tested and executed…It is not necessarily a notion of failure as much as a notion of scientifc experimentation…

One thing I keep seeing in clients and colleagues is that everyone seems too willing to try stupid ideas. If we had a better idea filtering mechanism where the best ones are selected and then tried with every stakholder involved understanding what the purpose of the trial is and how it is they can contribute to make the idea work, then it has nothing to do with faliure, but with working out the bugs, wouldn’t you think?

Noel Dickover

I was the one who asked the follow-on question during Andy’s cool audio Skype session – I just don’t see the Federal Govt currently as rewarding failure, or even tolerating it, as a normal course. We all know of enlightened leaders and risk takers who’ve had “top cover”, and have been able to make innovation happen. But far far more common are those trying to “stay between the lines” so they don’t get in trouble. At best, Failure in our world translates to your boss being on the front page of the Washington Post.

In many agencies, failure can be measured in loss of life. Given this background, its a far stretch to expect these agencies to embrace experimentation. The question then is how to make experimentation more culturally accepted. As Gwynne rightly points out, “We don’t budget for failure.” IT Program managers are supposed to correctly estimate the cost/schedule of their project even when there are still massive unknowns in requirements and scope. From a budgetary perspective, the idea of “management reserve” needs to come back into the fold. This gets to James’ idea that citizens need to embrace the concept of failure. Bottom line, if you aren’t gonna budget for it, nobody will take you seriously.