Celebrating Failure

In the public sector, failure is often a career ender. A panel at the Urban Institute discussed why it shouldn't be a last step, but a step towards success.
by | July 20, 2010 AT 3:39 PM

What makes Silicon Valley so dynamic? Venture capitalist Bill Colman (who has recently sold BEA Systems Inc. to Oracle for $8.5 billion) has an unusual answer to this common question: its tolerance to failure.

The public sector is different. In government, failure often isn't a learning experience. It's a career ender. Last Friday, a group of thinkers and practitioners gathered at the Urban Institute to discuss why this shouldn't be so. The title of their talk captures its spirit: "Failure: Public Policy's Stepladder to Success."

Urban's panelists came from four distinct fields: the criminal justice system, social welfare, state operations, and neighborhoods and youth development. Each set forth their own set of lessons.

Greg Berman, director of the Center for Court Innovation in New York City, says failure sometimes isn't simple and straightforward. Program outcomes are often more complex than a pat success or failure. Berman's second lesson is that collaborations tend to fall apart. Successful partnerships require constant work. (Panelist Martha Burt strongly recommends a paid coordinator for complex, multi-agency campaigns.) The third lesson is that context matters. The fact that an intervention works one place doesn't mean it will work somewhere else. Berman's fourth and final lesson: Resist the temptation to over promise in pursuit of funding.

After Berman, Martha Burt offered a series of insights gleaming from three decades of service in social welfare. Coordination always takes longer than you think it does. Double or even triple the time it will take to meet goals if you are teaming with agencies that have not worked together before, she advises. Look for agencies and people who have coordinated successfully in the past. They're more likely to do so again in the future. Burth also recommended supporting innovation where the talent, the interest, the leadership, and the resources are in your specific community.

Olivia Golden, author of "Reforming Child Welfare," had a different perspective. She argued that public officials were too focused on failure and should pay more attention to marginal successes. Too often, Golden claimed, the attempt to learn from failure breeds cynicism about the public sector instead.

Golden ended with the following advice: The easiest way to fail, she says, is by blindly following the most recent study, or doing what the latest research suggests. Imitating the latest fad can distract policymakers from diagnosing the specific problems -- and the specific strengths -- that exist in their community.

Finally, would-be innovators might consider the advice of Winston Churchill, as offered by moderator Kevin Finneran, editor-in-chief of "Issues in Science and Technology." To wit: "Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm."