Failing (forward) in local government: a conversation with Kate Bender

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 Kate Bender, Senior Management Analyst for the City of Kansas City, MO, about the first of these elements: shifting mindsets and beliefs to see identifying and learning from failure as a necessary step towards positive change. We also talked about Kansas City, MO’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement, two big tests for this mindset shift that occurred after our workshops took place.

What is it about your work in Kansas City government that led you to participate in our Failing Forward project?

We’ve always tried to promote a philosophy of process improvement, and we’ve had a willingness to examine the environment and make small changes and keep iterating forward. The concept of failing forward completely fits into that kind of cycle, and the focus on data and performance is aligned with our focus on transparency. Something we’ve preached for the last few years is the idea of being honest and straightforward about capturing areas of poor performance. And telling that story is the only way to move things forward.

Many people feel they don’t have the space to talk about what’s wrong in the status quo. Does that resonate with your experience?

Yes, but I think it’s a function of two spaces: the emotional safe space, and spaces as presented by time. Because even in departments where there’s emotional space, often they’re not making the time to have the conversation.

And that’s the bigger barrier: even for departments that are open to change, they’re not carving out the time or the resources they need.

Local government has been under pressure to cut, while still maintaining service levels. That means you have to push everybody toward service level provision and away from secondary functions like refining or quality assurance or even planning for the next iteration. And management also gets pushed toward service provision, rather than the strategic view of what they’re producing.

You’re saying there’s a diminishing ability to consider failures within the status quo because of limited resources and time. Why do you think people don’t make the time?

Most governments are relatively bureaucratic and siloed: this is your job, this is your lane, and this is not your lane. In the more hierarchical organizations, people have been discouraged from stepping outside their lane. We’re trying to provide people with the tools and frameworks to figure out how to tackle issues and think about change and process improvement, how to break it down into something that’s not big and scary and this massive endeavor. To move away from “it’s not my job” or “I don’t really know how to do it”. The more you can delegate to the front line, the greater your efficiency and your engagement with employees.

When you give people more autonomy, not only are you giving them a pathway to better engagement, but you’re also enabling them to create a better product, because they have more ownership.

Do you think that data and performance measurement functions help staff to learn from failure and try out new ideas?

You don’t know if you’re succeeding or failing unless you have some sort of measurement. If you have a performance framework around your data – a report or dashboard or whatever – it allows you to acknowledge problems and plan to change them. A concept that’s related to failure is innovation, and they go hand-in-hand. Innovation’s been one of the biggest words in city government over the last five years, but the ways organizations have pursued innovation are very different.

Many treat it as an add-on: here’s an I-team, here’s a Chief Innovation Officer, here’s something we’re going to tack onto the organization. It can be done quickly and in isolation, but it doesn’t always lead to real change, whereas a data and performance mindset is harder to disassemble and can create something more permanent.

That makes a lot of sense. COVID-19 has brought an insanely fast transition to remote working, among other changes. Has it increased people’s ability to think about changing the status quo? Or will we fall back into our old patterns of thinking that change is impossible?

That’s a really profound question. My suspicion is that we’ll have some departments that have accelerated their openness to change, and their willingness to fail will go in parallel with that. And they will stay at that higher level. While other departments are still trying to figure it out, they’re still negotiating around “how can we have as many people in the office as possible?” 

The rapidity with which it’s happening has convinced me that there are going to be some system-wide culture shifts.

We went from being nowhere near having a telecommuting policy – being actively against it, in fact – to having a group of senior-level staff championing it and not just in reaction to COVID. People are saying we really need to change our entire approach to this idea. 

How do you think Black Lives Matter and the murder of George Floydthis upswell in public engagement with government, and folks paying more attention to their public institutionshave impacted mindsets and beliefs?

We’d already started discussions about racial equity, and the conversation we had internally was framed largely by the public health perspective and racial disparities. I feel it needs a lot more direction from elected officials, because it involves a really major mindset shift for the city. It’s not something that most employees are comfortable doing totally on their own without some direction from the council. We must think actively about the city’s values after these events.

The conversation around policing right now is that we need to reinvent the whole thing. If we manage to reinvent policing – even in a handful of cities – that’s going to resonate in a lot of places.

Because it’s not something local government has done before, reinventing completely, especially not something as fundamental as policing.

I wonder if we will – in some big, macro way – start to transition from the conversations about innovation, which have been around the micro stuff and the customer stuff, to rethinking how we provide public services altogether. It would be cool to be in the middle of a sea-change like that.

Is there anything from COVID-19 or Black Lives Matter that you’d like to see sustained, looking through the lens of the Kansas City government?

I’d like to see a real examination of workforce management. I’m in favor of telecommuting as an option, because it can contribute to employee engagement.

There’s still a clock-in, clock-out mentality that runs throughout government, but with telecommuting we’re moving toward a true evaluation of productivity.

I hope it helps us rewrite our thoughts on how to value employees and how to think about their outputs. And then, without being too political about it, I think we should re-examine our public safety from the viewpoint of what outcomes we’re trying to achieve. That would be mind-blowing if we could actually get there and think about how we’re trying to serve people individually. 

#FailForward