Failing (forward) in local government: a conversation with Bobby Humes

The CPI North America team spent a year digging into the questions: why is it so hard to learn from failure in local government? What can we do to make it easier? In search of answers, we worked with six local governments across the U.S. in day-long workshops where we heard about the barriers that public servants face to learning from failure, and to generate some ideas to break down those barriers. From those conversations emerged four elements of what failing forward in government can look like, all summarized in our report with the Aspen Institute Center for Urban Innovation:

How to Fail (Forward): A Framework for Fostering Innovation in the Public Sector

We spoke with workshop participant Bobby Humes, Director of Human Resources for the City of Seattle, about the second of these elements: nurturing human relationships to create an environment where individuals feel safe to identify and learn from failures. We also talked about Seattle’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement, two big tests for interpersonal dynamics that occurred after our workshops took place.

What interested you about the concept of failure in relation to Seattle’s city government?

In the public sector you’re not allowed to fail, because so much is at stake. Revenues are important, and there are people’s livelihoods and public services, and to fail means that you didn’t come through with the mandate that taxpayers agreed to.

When I heard about Failing Forward, I thought that this could create the impetus for public sector innovation in Seattle, because I believe that bureaucracies we operate in should actually function like universities.

We can start thinking about our work in such a way that we’re constantly learning. That way, we’d giving taxpayers more for their investment, as opposed to just playing it safe. 

There are studies about what happens when risk is done well, and I want to be in that conversation. It’s time for the public sector to renew itself and to think critically about the present opportunities, because if we don’t, we’ll continue to provide mediocre services. And that’s not what people want.

How do you think the way your team members relate to one another influences this ability to learn? How does it influence perceptions of failure?

I don’t want to make light of COVID, but – horrible as it is to say – I could not have paid a consultant for the change management ability it’s created. It’s made us a better team. We’ve had to lift certain people up, ask more of managers and staff, and work more flexibly.

From a failure standpoint, people are fearless – we have people shooting ideas out everywhere.

We’ve become more vulnerable, and we don’t know how this is going to end, but we’re going to put data and great thinking into a future state vision and move forward on it.

I’d like to explore that vulnerability – does it come from almost hitting rock-bottom?

My immediate response is: what do you have to lose? We started up an internal talent transfer system to allow us to respond to COVID, redeploying folks who weren’t working because of lockdown.

We turned that from a concept to implementation in three weeks – in the public sector. And it’s dope.

That was so cool you did that. Tell me more about this program. What are you most proud of, and how did it come about? 

It was our ability to serve food vouchers, help out with food banks, and issue small business loans. We were able to create an internal marketplace for talent around these immediate needs. And it started with one conversation. I went to my office, wrote it on the whiteboard, and gave it to a director who was a few weeks into her role. She built some relationships and made it happen. Really cool stuff.

At CPI, we believe that learning from failure is a team sport. How does this resonate your experience? What is leadership’s role on that team?

The role of a director is much like a conductor, they’re telling the flutes to accent and be louder or telling the drums to crescendo, they’re making the music have emotion. Our job as leaders is to get people to focus on the emotional experience and feel more comfortable being part of the orchestra as a whole. I think we did a great job on that through Covid-19, but it’s time to take a conductor’s birds-eye view again.

We’ve been going at such a pace that we’ve been gracious in excusing failure, but we haven’t made time to say, “here’s the thing that didn’t work well – what can we learn from that?” That’s my next job as a leader.

That’s interesting. Do you find that a lot of the learning happens not at the leadership level, but in the full unit?

In my dream Utopia environment, everywhere is a learning and development space, and everyone’s a teacher and a learner. I was a band nerd in high school. Even in the pit, you have a first chair, second chair. If I was off, the first chair would lean over and say: “Hey, that’s E flat” or whatever. I would love it if my Department was like that. Bu we’re not quite there yet, and so someone has to lead – getting to that point is the director’s responsibility.

How, if at all, has COVID-19 shifted the interpersonal dynamics on your team?

We’re closer, we’re bonded together. We have things like midday game breaks that everyone’s invited to. Staff are working with each other differently. When you’re on Teams or any other platform, you have messaging. There’s going to be the overarching conversation, but also people sharing gifs or asking a question to put into a parking lot. We have an enhanced ability to communicate, and that creates a sort of freedom. And there’s safety there, because people are offering views like, “Oh, so-and-so was reading this book about it, here’s a link”.

So we’re starting to be OK with saying – this agenda item isn’t the only way to look at it. To me, that’s an example of psychological safety.

It’s clear that there have been some impressive changes in your organization. As a leader, how do you model the the change you are seeking to promote?

My job is firstly to frame a vision and let people shoot holes in it, which fosters ownership. Number two would be to listen. I set up a vision, have these touch points that allow people to be vulnerable, and act on what I’m actually hearing and not just pay lip service to it. Third is to find consistency and shared leadership, so I don’t always have to be the one talking, the one calling out if something’s wrong. 

I want to leave a legacy of doing things because they’re the right things to do. And we get there by sharing leadership. A lot of good ideas come from people who aren’t in our boardrooms, but they’ve thought about the problem for a long time and are probably going home and telling their spouses and dogs and cats all the ways to solve that problem. I know that, because I used to be that person. Most of the time these are women of color.

Shared vision, listening, and shared leadership – those are the three things we’re consistently trying to do here.

The murder of George Floyd has sparked massive public uprisings, particularly in Seattle. As public servants, how do you navigate what might be a newly tense internal environment while working towards change? 

It’s a great question. We saw the response to people on the streets in protests against police brutality, and that sentiment of justice is also within our staff. In Seattle, we started our race and social justice initiative; other cities have adopted it. And it’s really forcing us to take an internal look. How do we weave in justice so that it doesn’t alienate our white brothers and sisters, but says that injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere and you shouldn’t have to come to work and feel othered? How do we move into an anti-racist culture? There are also a lot of folks who are resistant. We don’t want to push them out of our system, we want to educate and empower them to be part of this change. There’s fresh energy around these topics, and I’m excited about what Seattle can do in the next five years.

Are there any learnings from failures in addressing the Covid-19 pandemic that you hope to take forward? 

When you remove some of the comfort from situations, people respond really well to failure, because we can only get better as we stumble along. We could have been more intentional in the beginning about setting ourselves up for the marathon that this truly is, but I believe we’ve got there now.

#FailForward