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CPI in the news Article August 4th, 2020
Infrastructure • Cities • Finance

Governments Must Fail (Forward) to Succeed

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Elysa Neumann, Centre for Public Impact

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Governments Must Fail (Forward) to Succeed

The Centre for Public Impact and the Aspen Institute Center for Urban Innovation Release “How to Fail (Forward): A Framework for Fostering Innovation in the Public Sector”

Washington D.C. - Today, the Centre for Public Impact and the Aspen Institute Center for Urban Innovation released a digital report “How to Fail (Forward): A Framework for Fostering Innovation in the Public Sector.” The report provides an in-depth look at one of the most challenging areas of governing: how to create government cultures that foster identifying and learning from failures (what we call failing forward). In a sector where the stakes are always high and the ability to innovate more tightly constrained by budget and time, we show that governments' ability to fail forward is critical to innovation.

“We believe that you can't innovate unless you put learning from failure at the center of the process,” said Josh Sorin, Program Director for City Innovation at the Centre for Public Impact, “As we face the unprecedented threat of the COVID-19 pandemic, economic challenges, and rising calls for social justice, we see that local governments have managed to innovate at a pace previously considered unthinkable. To continue this forward progress, governments must plan to learn quickly and with intention from the failures that will continue to arise.”

The report's findings were informed by a combination of key literature, interviews with experts, and insights from workshops with six local governments, 20+ government departments, and over 150 public servants who participated in Failure Foundries across the country. Based on this work, the Centre for Public Impact and the Aspen Institute Center for Urban Innovation identified four places local governments can explore to develop organizations with cultures that enable failing forward:

  1. MINDSET AND BELIEFS: Acknowledge that failures are already occurring in the status quo and view failure as a necessary step towards positive change.

  2. HUMAN RELATIONSHIPS: Foster internal teams and relationships that are rooted in psychological safety and empowerment across all levels.

  3. SYSTEMS AND PROCESSES: Redesign internal systems and processes to promote identifying, learning from, and taking action about failures.

  4. EXTERNAL NARRATIVES AND ECOSYSTEMS: Reshape the narrative and ecosystem to be supportive of local government innovation.

“In addition to providing a framework for fostering public sector innovation, this report also fills a critical gap in studies to date,” stated Jennifer Bradley of the Aspen Institute Center for Urban Innovation, “While there is ample research about the value of ‘failing fast' and ‘failing often' in business, the literature comes up short when it comes to government. We believe that a culture shift around failure, which allows departments to embrace and learn from the unexpected, will empower governments to continuously improve outcomes and efficacy for residents.”

Given the unique and staggering challenges facing municipalities during the COVID-19 crisis, the Centre for Public Impact and the Aspen Institute Center for Urban Innovation believe it is imperative to share knowledge that might help governments better serve their residents. The Centre for Public Impact and the Aspen Institute Center for Urban Innovation hope governments use the Fail Forward framework as a resource in facing the ongoing turbulence of our current era, and ideally, to empower them to move forward stronger than ever.

The full report is available online.


About the Centre for Public ImpactThe Centre for Public Impact is a not-for-profit founded by Boston Consulting Group. Believing that governments can and want to do better for people, we work side-by-side with governments—and all those who help them—to reimagine government, and turn ideas into action, to bring about better outcomes for everyone. We champion public servants and other changemakers who are leading this charge and develop the tools and resources they need, like our Public Impact Fundamentals, so we can build the future of government together.

About the Aspen Institute Center for Urban Innovation

The Aspen Institute Center for Urban Innovation (CUI) is a network hub that catalyzes and supports a broader movement to define values-led approaches to developing, piloting, regulating, and evaluating urban technologies.  We connect city leaders, non-profit organizations, and emerging businesses who share the belief that people deserve more than “smart cities.”  We deserve cities that promote human flourishing and digital infrastructure that enhances the experiences and opportunities that city life affords for all residents, particularly those in underserved neighborhoods.


Written by:

Elysa Neumann Director, Communications & Storytelling, North America
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