Invest failure wisely to generate insights for better government

Posted: August 10th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Open Government | 1 Comment »

In brief: Government is continually confronted by challenges that can only be met by discovery, since existing knowledge is inadequate. Discovery relies, in part, on experimentation. Fruitful experimentation relies on a tolerance for significant failures .

Last week, Lovisa Williams wrote a wellreceived post, “Failure is not an option”, arguing that

Most civil servants … recognize we are in positions of public trust…. Therefore, we have developed a culture where failure is not considered an option. If we fail, then there could be serious consequences….

In order for Government to successfully evolve to the next generation of government, … we need to ensure we have established a means where we can continue to feed the evolution….

We do have things that don’t work as expected and absolutely fail, but we don’t talk about these things even within our own agencies. We are also missing the potential for us to start exploring other paths or opportunities earlier.

She’s onto something very important.

Government action takes place in many different contexts. When the problems are familiar, we have well-known solutions that produce predictable and satisfactory results, and the consequences of failure are high, it makes sense to go for predictable results and sanction failure.

But today we face challenges that are unprecedented, even baffling, some consequential, even earth-shattering – such as global warming, deep sea oil spills, deflation, Al Qaeda and other deadly yet ghostly foes – some merely puzzling – such as social media, generational changes, and new political constellations. And we don’t yet have satisfactory solutions.

So, failure, to some degree, is inevitable. I’d argue, with Lovisa, against the massive, glacially slow failures that, if they teach us at all, provide too little new information, too late for us to change course.

Instead, I’d argue for, well-designed experiments, where we recognize what we don’t know and invest effort (and to some degree, failure) to generate insights that arrive early enough to make a difference. Instead of “spending” failure slowly, covertly, and massively, let’s invest it openly, quickly, carefully, and in small amounts, to create new methods, opportunities, and success.


    Eric Ries’s podcast on Lean Startups: Doing More with Less shows these ideas at work in business and entrepreneurship.

  • @digiphile’s tweet mashing up comment’s on Lovisa’s post with @marcidale’s notion of #AgileGov was helpful in shifting my thinking in this direction.
  • Then, Peter Norvig’s observation that “If you do experiments and you’re always right, then you aren’t getting enough information out of those experiments” put it all together. (Thanks to for the pointer. )