Failing (forward) in local government: a conversation with Carrie S. Cihak

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 generated 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 Carrie S. Cihak, who leads learning and impact activities and partnerships for King County Metro (in Seattle, WA), about the third of these elements: creating systems and processes that enable identifying, learning from, and addressing failures. After the workshop took place, Carrie was detailed to King County’s COVID-19 response, so we discussed learning from failure in that context, as well as how it relates to King County’s focus on racial equity.

How are you coping with being at the seat of government in King County, where I know you have a strong anti-racist focus? 

George Floyd’s murder is obviously horrific and tragic. I wish I could say unbelievable, but the truth is that the death of Black men and other people of color of all genders at the hands of government agents just keeps repeating. The activism that has sprung forth as a result actually gives me great hope – I see people on the streets claiming their power, which is what creates real change, and more allyship among some people who already hold power, too. 

As the government responsible for local public health, we are battling two pandemics, and are working diligently to support protesters in protecting themselves against the pandemic of COVID-19 while they exercise their constitutional rights and make their voices heard in the fight against the pandemic of racism. 

Luckily, the recent rise in COVID cases in King County doesn’t seem to be due to the protests. I participated in the largest march here, and it was amazing to see the number of people who were coming out, and the care and respect with which people treated one another.

Personally, I think like so many people, I’m experiencing a wide range of complex emotions – from outrage and despondency, to optimism and hopefulness. I’m exceedingly grateful that I and my family are safe and healthy and that I have a job – and one where I can acknowledge and find support for these emotions. And I’m distressed this is not true for so many people here, and I’m more motivated than ever to help change that.

How has the pandemic affected the structures and processes you had previously identified that might keep you from learning from failure (e.g., silos, no time to plan for learning etc..)?

There’s so much still we don’t know about COVID and, being among the first places in the country where the virus emerged, we had to move very publicly to a position of learning. This can be an unusual stance for government – government leaders are often used to speaking authoritatively, and don’t often admit uncertainty publicly. But in an emergency and rapidly evolving situation like a pandemic, where so much is truly unknown, that doesn’t work well or engender public trust. 

In King County, we knew that our COVID-19 response couldn’t be successful unless we centered it in the lived experience of community, with a strong focus on racial equity. We set up structures to both receive from and push out information to community quickly through trusted messengers. Those community connections have made it easier to innovate and learn, and also be aware of our failures.

A lot of times in government – because of the white normative culture in which we operate – we’re not even aware that we’re failing the people we are entrusted to serve. 

The new mechanisms we’ve put in place to learn more quickly from community have been really helpful in rapidly learning about failing, averting failure, and being more innovative. We’ve been motivated in this because everyone working on the COVID-19 response realizes that the cost of failure is very high:  it’s people’s lives. So, there is a tension in that we need to learn and innovate in order to stop this disease and its inequities, while at the same time the consequences of making mistakes are very high. So that presents both challenges and opportunities for learning.

Tell me more about how this new community-centered structure has enabled better learning from failure?

For the COVID response, we called on County employees representing different types of expertise and lived experience and pulled them from their regular jobs into our community response branch. Together, they bring a diverse set of insights, networks, and relationships into the work. They also come to the work with an already strong racial equity lens. I find that many people with this perspective have an innate interest in the learning process — and so they were open to iterating quickly and addressing failures regularly. 

In addition, we created a structure to support “community navigators” — folks outside government who know what’s happening in people’s everyday lives and are willing to challenge us. Getting this in place required a lot of internal and external advocacy – and represents both a failure and a success.

Once we got out of our own way and overcame some of the hurdles we created for ourselves, we were able to quickly tap into the community partnerships and trust we have built over the years. 

I feel a much closer relationship to public accountability because of this – community is right there with us. And we can’t pretend that we’re not failing when trusted partners tell us that we are.

It’s interesting, because it upends the narrative. You’re working so closely with members of the public that you have to learn, because there are so many obvious failures that to ignore them is the real failure. Is that right?

Yes. We have far more to lose by not connecting with community than by bringing community in.

As humans, we tend to overemphasize the potential failures that could occur with change and overstate the risk of change, even when there is far more failure and risk in maintaining the status quo. With respect to racial equity, my experience as a white American is that we are generally more comfortable with the failure of ignoring the impact of the racist status quo, because the personal harms to us are not as great or as obvious to us. The result of this is that our governments and systems have been failing on this for 400 years, and are comfortable enough with racial injustice to perpetuate it. 

The protests we’ve seen in communities around the United States, including here in the Seattle region, are useful in that they are making the risk and discomfort of the status quo higher for government leaders.

I think that, if local governments would weave work with the community into the fabric of our decision making, then we would see big change much more quickly and it would actually occur with less, not more, disruption. 

So, in recent years, King County and other local governments are learning that it is not enough to make a decision and then realize, “oh yeah, now we’ve got to go out and talk to the public”. In King County, in the COVID response and in other ways, such as King County Metro’s Equity Cabinet, we are learning how to more deeply engage community in co-creating solutions and sharing decision-making power. That’s creating a broader recognition that community knowledge is a form of expertise we should value as much, if not more than, other types of expertise we routinely consider in our decision making. We are realizing that governments miss out on some of the best solutions and can make ill-informed choices when we get further and further isolated from community and the actual impact of what we’re doing.

When we think about the “systems and processes” that inhibit learning from failure, we often think about procedural things, like performance management and decision-making processes. What process do you think most inhibits learning from failure?

I think a key missing step in our processes is the fact that we don’t take time to closely listen and prioritize building relationships – we tend to favor process over relationship. That leads us to further failure, and it means that good ideas are unable to take root because the environment doesn’t feel safe to try them out. That is particularly true in emergency management structures, which – for many very good reasons – are specifically built around structured processes and not individual people. But that can be particularly problematic in a long-term emergency response like a pandemic, when we pull a lot of people together to respond who may not have worked together before. Combine that with the stress that people are under, the high stakes, and a commitment but lack of practice to working effectively in racially diverse groups – that can lead to a lot of tensions in the team. To get through that, you need to stay centered in your values, in community, and realize the only path forward is through. Does that make sense?

Yes, totally. Is there anything else that’s become more relevant during the crisis?

The performance management piece is interesting. Once something becomes a whole field of practice, it can end up taking on a structure that can become ossified and somewhat overwhelming. But when you get to the heart of performance management, it’s trying to use data in real time to understand how you’re doing, and then adjust. And that’s exactly what public health experts and epidemiologists are doing with respect to the novel coronavirus. King County now has several data dashboards, tracking many different impacts of COVID-19, but we began very quickly with the basics of tracking disease infection, understanding it, and working to dramatically blunt its spread. We set aside or sped up a lot of the process that comes with performance management, in part because COVID-19 has reduced it all down to its very essence:  while there are lots of risks and tradeoffs to manage, we have directly related metrics that tell us in pretty near real time the impact of our actions. 

Outside of the immediate disease response, we’ve had to completely rethink so many of our services and their measures of performance, such as our public transit system. Our team at Metro had to flip the agency’s focus very quickly, from spending years encouraging more people to ride transit, to getting people to not to ride transit except for essential trips. Most of our usual performance metrics have needed complete rethinking, very quickly – for example, what constitutes safety on a bus today and thus how we track our performance is very different from what that was back in January. We’re also trying to quickly learn about who is still riding, who most needs the transit system, and how we best get them to where they need to go as safely as possible. Many of these people – and including our Metro drivers – are essential workers who are putting themselves at risk to help take care of our community, so the stakes are very high. So while the pandemic has thrown so much of what we define as successful performance up in the air, it is also showing us how adept we can be about learning, and learning rapidly.

Has any space been made to reflect on how things have worked out? 

There’s such a heightened sense of urgency that it’s been difficult to reflect in a structured way. But learning from failure has never been more important than in the face of this pandemic.

Operating in the COVID context presents so many hard decisions that have to be made quickly and with limited information – for every one of us and in every aspect of society – that it is impossible to completely avoid failure. If our fear of that failure is too active, we fail to act and we fail to adjust.

As just one example, if you think about the reopening phases communities have established all around the country, these are essentially learning experiments – with very high stakes. People in every sector in every community are trying to figure out what can be reopened safely without compromising their health and leading to more disease. Unfortunately, many of these experiments are failing, and people are dying as a result.  It does seem though, at least on the local level, that more leaders around the country are learning that the path through this pandemic and to reopening is not a straight line. 

I hope all local governments will create opportunities to step back and reflect, and we need to do that with community. What did we learn about learning itself from COVID, how we operate, what we did successfully, and where we failed? What did the COVID environment teach us about learning, and how can we take those learnings and apply them to co-create a better future? People are in the middle of it now, so they’re not consciously reflecting. I was thinking, oh gosh, we’ve totally set aside what we learned from the Failure Foundry. But then I realized we’re actually in the Foundry right now.

#FailForward