• Opinion
  • August 27, 2019
  • 8 minutes
  • 0

Why public servants must learn to fail — and 3 tips for how to do it

Opinion: If you want to innovate government, you must prepare for dead ends

This opinion article was written by Brian Elms, Innovation Practice Lead at the Change and Innovation Agency in the city of Denver. Brian Elms will present his approach to failure at Apolitical’s Future of Learning Show & Tell on September 11, 2019. Sign up to join here.


If you’ve read much about entrepreneurship, you may recognise the phrases, “fail fast” or “fail forward.”

Or perhaps you have clocked Facebook’s motto: “move fast and break things.” Many privately held companies try to foster an environment where some failure is okay because CEOs know it’s essential to innovation.

But what if you work in the public sector? Is it possible to make failure a part of working in government?

There is no simple answer to this question.

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Most of our failures in the public sector end up on the front page of a paper, or result in someone “being held accountable” and removed from their duties. Even if we’re not talking about a scandal, most government agencies uphold an environment where “failure is not an option,” as Gene Kranz, flight director for the Apollo 13 mission famously said, and leadership programs around the world have been keen to repeat ever since.

It’s a great quote. We should stop using it.

If we want to innovate in government, we have to figure out how to encourage public servants to make mistakes in the name of progress.

A catastrophic failure at the DMV

Here’s an example: While I was working with a city’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), we set out to reduce the stereotypical wait times plaguing the department.

Through our work, we learned that about half of the customers coming to the DMV were in the wrong place or couldn’t afford the cost of the license plate at the time of the transaction. This observation led the team to a single innovation idea: we would roll out a script with a few questions that every DMV employee would read to establish whether the individual in front of them lived in the County and could pay the fees.

In our first attempt to test this idea, the customer was so offended by the line of questioning, she actually threw her paperwork at the DMV technician.

What started as a serious screw-up ended up a resounding success

To say we messed up would be an understatement. This was a catastrophic failure. However, we also did some things most government agencies wouldn’t have done:

Firstly, the team didn’t roll this out to all 10 DMV offices before testing it. We tested it in one office, with one technician, to see if it would work.

Secondly, when we regrouped, we learned from our mistake, and we came up with a few new interventions: We ditched the script and instead created a simple Frequently Asked Questions sheet for our technicians.

By using an FAQ instead of a script allowed the tech to go through several triage points in their head before starting a transaction that could fail. Thus avoiding going all the way to the end of a transaction and not successfully finishing the service.

We also updated the information on our mailings and website so that they gave our customers average costs and better location information resulting in a ten minute drop in wait times. And a shorter wait for one person quickly translates to countless hours saved, when we multiply by the number of people visiting the DMV in any given year.

Failure is an option

What started as a serious screw-up ended up a resounding success.

Successful innovations happen through failures. When failure is an option, your teams can find ways to learn from mistakes and move on.

Innovation and failure go hand in hand

The good news is that it’s possible to encourage employees to take risks, make mistakes, and learn from them, no matter how staunchly perfectionism is entrenched in your culture. Here are three simple ways your organisation can lessen the burden of failure and encourage innovation.

First, find simple, small ways to make the service flow smoother.

If you lessen the danger of failure, more of your team members will start to try to fix the problems they see everyday. At the DMV, we did this by creating a simple frequently asked questions (FAQ) sheet for our technicians. This simple FAQ did not require any new resources.

Second, test things. We tested the script and learned it was a bad idea. Public entities are not accustomed to testing things before rolling them out. In fact, we have a tendency to undertake enormous rollouts without user testing. But testing lowers the stakes and makes it less scary to try bold ideas.

Third, remind your team that through failure, you innovate better — and support your colleagues when things don’t go to plan. At the DMV, we never would have found a solution if we hadn’t been willing to fail first and know that our manager supported our efforts.

Innovation and failure go hand in hand. Do not allow your team to fear making mistakes and taking chances. Only through failure do we find the right simple, small innovations that transform the work.   — Brian Elms.

Brian Elms will present his top tips for how to fail better at Apolitical’s Future of Learning Show & Tell webinar on 11 September, 2019. Sign up to join here — it’s free!

Brian Elms is the author of Peak Performance and Innovation Practice Lead at the Change and Innovation Agency. He is an Urban Leadership Fellow at the University of Nevada Las Vegas and is the former the Director of Peak Academy and Analytics for the City and County of Denver. He specialises in government innovation and process improvement with more than 15 years of experience providing management expertise to government agencies, elected officials, trade associations, and nonprofits.

(Picture credit: Unsplash)

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