Failing (forward) in local government: a conversation with David Noguera

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 David Noguera, Director of Housing and Neighborhood Revitalization for Dallas, TX about the fourth of these elements: fostering an external ecosystem that enables learning within government. We also talked about Dallas’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.

Government culture can inhibit learning from failure, as can external pressures from the ecosystem. What do you think has the biggest effect on your department in Dallas?

Resistance to change is a factor across all the Housing Department’s activities. You have so many folks involved in the process, whether they be residents, staff, or external players like contractors and builders.

They’ve operated one way for so long, there’s often strong resistance to doing it differently. You can offer all these alternative approaches, but frequently the response is: “this is how we’ve done it, and this is how it’s going to be.”

But it’s been remarkable to see how fast we’ve changed in the COVID environment. It’s unfortunate that it took a worldwide pandemic to generate this change, but that’s what I’m experiencing.

Do you think those changes are permanent or merely fleeting? 

Some will be permanent. The city’s facing major budget deficits because of our loss of sales tax. And it’s not just a matter of furloughs and cutting jobs, we need to look deeper than that. Teleworking is now an everyday practice, and we’re able to have smaller workspaces with staff rotating in and out. Perhaps that will free up property that we can sell to help fill the budget deficit.

How do you think the relationship with residents affects internal culture, particularly regarding the fact that many residents come to your Department at acutely challenging times in their lives?

This notion of last resort, you’ve got to understand what it means. Many of the people coming to us for help,  they have holes in their house with large garbage cans collecting the water when it rains. Their electricity’s been shut off and they’ve got extension cords going over to the neighbor’s house. You can’t imagine some of the conditions these folks are living in. When they come to us, it’s with a sense of desperation, because they don’t want to end up under a bridge or evicted from their home and in some kind of facility.

The hard part is we can help only one out of every ten people who walk through our door, because we don’t have the resources. And there’s this sense of guilt and failure.

It’s a balancing act: how do we maximize the services that we provide? I’m having to pump up my staff, so they can continue to take calls and serve residents, because it takes a lot out of you and that pressure is constant. I’m also trying to instill compassion in our staff, so they can relate to residents while being honest about their expectations. Everyone wants to hear good news, but residents need to realize the harsh reality upfront. It’s down to open dialogue, open communication.

Many public servants can’t talk about failures or try new things because they’re afraid of the media response. Does that resonate with you?

What I’ve found is that negativity sells. That’s what gets the attention. In October 2019, a tornado plowed through Northern Dallas and took out a number of low-income apartment complexes. And the media are asking me: “what are you going to do about this?” If you look at our resources, there’s really nothing we can do about it. When I get these questions, it’s as though they know the answer and they’re just looking for validation that the city’s failing these poor people.

I’ve got good relationships with many of our local media folks, but I also understand how they operate. So, I try to channel their energy where attention is needed. In one neighborhood, a developer was looking to build a cement batch plant and had circumvented the community outreach efforts. They’d managed to get their item on the agenda for approval, and it was smooth sailing because no one knew about it. Until an individual resident who found out about this and was rightfully upset reached out to me, complaining: “I just heard about this. What can I do?” It was so far along in the process, there was little they could do. But the media could really help them. I identified residents to carry the message to the media about their concerns. And it got so much attention from television, newspapers, and social media that they managed to kill it.

How does more negative media coverage affect your staff’s ability to identify, learn from, and address failures?

When you get the right people to work in local government, they’re not doing it for the paycheck. They’re doing it because they really care about the issues, they want to make an impact. But they read the paper, they watch the news. Sometimes they’ll come to me in tears, asking: “how can they say this, when we’re working so hard, and they’re not seeing the full picture?” 

One output from our failing forward session was a marketing campaign called “This is Our House”.

It’s not enough for us to do the work and let the media determine the story. We’ve got to narrate our own story, through advertisements, postings, press releases.

I’m planning a session for the public in a fortnight to talk about some of our successes. I really hope that it helps our staff feel a bit more latitude to experiment and try new things.

One thing we saw in cities all over the country is that external funding can limit innovation. In particular, rigid federal and state grants discourage experimentation because they don’t provide space to get things wrong. How does this resonate with your experience?

I worked for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for many years and I have much appreciation and respect for the work that they do. With that said, I’d challenge our administrators to redesign the affordable housing programs, which were developed in the 1960s, 1970s, and most recently in 1989. That was thirty years ago! They have to evolve with the times if we want to really support our residents. I’d also love to see more HUD people do tours in local government to see how HUD programs really limit local innovation. It’s easy to sit on the Hill and point fingers, but you don’t grasp the magnitude of community development challenges in Urban America until you’re in the thick of it. 

The Black Lives Matter protests and the murder of George Floyd have elevated the public conversation about trust in government and made people more aware of City Hall. Do you feel this heightened scrutiny and interest has affected your operations?

Right now there’s talk about defunding the police. The city allocates $3 million a year to affordable housing, while our police department has a budget of $550 million. Something’s wrong there.

I hope people realize it’s not just about policing lower-income neighborhoods, it’s important to provide the social services and community development they so desperately need.

I was in high school during the Rodney King riots, but they fizzled out and we didn’t get systemic change. The demonstrations and discussions now certainly seem more significant than those I recall back in 1992. I’m waiting to see what comes out of this next budget cycle. Yes, we have a deficit. Yes, cuts are being made, but how that budget is crafted will tell whether we’re achieving real change.

We’re working in affordable housing with low-income communities, racial and ethnic communities who’ve been persecuted for generations in this country, but I do see a turnaround in momentum. Fair housing is a racial justice issue. Often, we’re swimming upstream and that wipes out some of our staff, because the work’s so hard and we seem to achieve so little. But when you hear people who haven’t previously spoken out discovering their City Hall, it supports the efforts that we’re already undertaking. Many times I’m saying to these people: “go, go, go!”

#FailForward