🎙️ Listen to the episode
Everyone fails occasionally. But when governments fail, it has an impact on real lives. To learn from our mistakes, we must be open and honest and spend time reflecting on them. In season 2 episode 4, hear real stories about failure in government and examples of how to move forward.
Listen to the full episode below or click here:
[00:00:00] Adrian Brown: Before we start today, I just wanted to let you know that our episode does contain some strong language.
[00:00:09] President George Bush: And he's right, mistakes were made…and I'm frankly not happy about it.
[00:00:15] Adrian Brown: Hello and welcome to Reimagining Government. My name is Adrian Brown and I'm the Executive Director at the Centre for Public Impact. Now, no matter what walk of life you're in, everybody on this planet has been affected by and had to deal with failure.
Uh, failure unites us as a people, but it also is something that we tend to try and hide from others and not speak about very openly. But what if our apprehension to talk about failures is the very thing that's preventing us from greater success. Today, we're facing our failures head on as I chat with Athena Hughes, who's aSenior Associate in CPI's team in North America.Hi, Athena.
Athena Hughes: Hi, Adrian.
Adrian Brown: Thank you so much for joining us. And in the spirit of failure, what we're going to try and do [00:01:00] is record this episode in a sort of warts and all fashion and minimise the edits. Usually, I make lots and lots of mistakes as we go along. And Graeme, who helps us with these podcasts, has to spend a lot of time editing.
But, uh, because this episode is about failure, we're going to try and record it as live. So let's see how we, how we go. And, and thank you, Athena, for joining us in this, uh, in this experiment journey, as well as we, we, uh, bear our failures, uh, for everyone to see in this recording.
[00:01:30] Athena Hughes:Yes, it's very exciting.We'll see how this goes.
[00:01:35] Adrian Brown: We'll be covering why public servants should be open to holding their hands up to failure in order to find better solutions for the people that they serve. What do you think the current relationship looks like between government and failure?
[00:01:51] Athena Hughes: So I think failure in government is both unique in some ways and not in others.
Anytime you've got an institution that [00:02:00] impacts a lot of people, that failure is going to be magnetised, or magnified, excuse me, whether that's residents, or customers, or partners, government impacts everyone in a lot of ways. There's multiple points of contact. Some of them are really obvious. Some of them aren't.
So, governments in particular, when they fail, have a really deep impact on people's day to day lived experience, and I think a lot of government failures don't just come in individual mistakes, but are also issues with, um, the status quo when it is not actually responsive to people or doesn't meet their needs effectively and also the successes tend to be less obvious than the failures and a lot of people's experience.
So I think also a lot of the relationship that governments have to failure is a fear of talking about it because you have a lot of people that for good valid [00:03:00] reasons sometimes might be suspicious of government, um, might not trust the government's ability to make changes that are needed to deliver programmes effectively, to serve the people's interests.
Um, and a lot of people just want government to be as small and as lean as possible, regardless of the context. So, kind of, admitting to failure comes with an extra risk of admitting that those naysayers were right, um, and potentially giving legitimacy, excuse me, legitimacy to the idea that the government can't be trusted, um, with your money or to deal with problems.
And at the same time, if we can all see certain aspects of government failure in our day to day lives, when there isn't that openness to talk about it, it can actually make trust issues worse. Like, if I can see there's a problem, if you can see there's a problem, but you're not willing to acknowledge to me that there's an issue, then...
Why should I trust you? I think so it can kind of [00:04:00] become a self stoking cycle.
[00:04:02] Adrian Brown: That's a fantastic overview. Thank you. And highlights how big this issue is, I suppose, how important this issue is, but also how tricky this issue is to talk about in an open and honest way if you are, if you are a government, if you're a public official.
[00:04:21]So before we take a deep dive into what failure looks like in government, I thought it was important to point out the flaws in how we see failure in society.
[00:04:30] Carlos Zimbron: When you fail, you need the space and you don't want to talk about it because it's a difficult moment, it's traumatising probably. You don't go with your friends to have a coffee and say like, hey, you know, uh, I failed yesterday, you know, in, in that, with that words, like probably you say some things, and...
And you share a little bit, but Fuckup Nights and other projects that talk about failure, like help to, to cover that part of, of [00:05:00] our, our life. Yeah. It's cathartic in some way.
Athena Hughes: That was the voice of our first guest, Carlos Zimbron, Co-Founder and CEO of Fuckup Nights. Fuckup Nights are events that provide a safe space for people within businesses to talk about their failures openly and be supported and praised for sharing their story.
It's a striking name for a business, but Carlos justifies its boldness. A business built on failure needs a name that mirrors its impact. Here's how they came up with the idea.
[00:05:27] Carlos Zimbron: We were five friends in a barbecue here in Mexico City one night. We were young people. Young and beautiful. All the kind of talks and conferences happening in that moment were everything about success and how great things were going and everything that it's kind of inspirational, of course but it was like kind of boring for us.
We are a group of like a group of misfits. We we think like what's the opposite of that? What's the B side of that [00:06:00] and we come out with the idea of failure and like the opposite thing and something that is kind of shameful and nobody talks about. But failure is not simple, you know, it's, it's not easy to overcome and it's kind of painful also.
And the best way to describe it was like a fuck up. And we, we loved the name. Uh, it was pretty obvious and immediate in that moment came out really, of course, around a lot of laughing and a lot of mescal, I have to say. It was a great idea. And at the end of that night, we had a project.
[00:06:45] Adrian Brown: Just, I'd just like to comment, Athena, that Carlos sounds enormous fun, and he described the group of people he was speaking with as, uh, young and beautiful misfits, which I think, uh, perhaps we should try and, uh, apply to ourselves at CPI at some point, [00:07:00] um, but, uh, this idea he's, he's, uh, pitching here of, of Fuckup Nights.
Within that group that he was describing a sort of sense of familiarity, uh, that they're all friends with each other, you, it requires humility. What does that mean in terms of how it changes how we might normally approach, uh, thinking about failure?
[00:07:21] Athena Hughes: One of the things I like about how he describes this sort of founding moment is that takes this idea of failure that we often think about as shameful and embarrassing and as he says, painful. And turns it into something fun.
Um, and you're right. The kind of generative night that this happened sounds like it was just generally a fun night. But really focusing on, I think, the shared experience of failure. You know, it's something that we all go through. No one alive has not failed.
But we don't like to talk about it because it is [00:08:00] painful. And I like the way that the concept of Fuckup Nights really flips that on its head and says, what if we leaned into the fact that we all fail and talk about it more openly? And it, it creates potentially a new opportunity for people to connect with each other and empathise with each other and share that very human experience in a different way.
Um, and it also sounds fun, which takes a lot of the, I don't know, the heaviness out of it in a way.
[00:08:31] Adrian Brown: It does sound fun, but, um, I think this is where you're going to take us next, but I can see how a conversation over a barbecue with drinks and friends talking about failures is, uh, one context, but then how, how does he take that forward into something which can actually be shared with others and work in other settings.
[00:08:53] Athena Hughes: Yeah, so, uh, you're, you're right. That's what's coming next. Um, as he says, this barbecue with [00:09:00] friends came up with this idea, but how are they actually going to approach it? What actually exactly would happen in a Fuckup Night?
[00:09:08] Carlos Zimbron: You know, in the barbecue was, yeah, everything, it was funny and, and a lot of laughing, but then how, how we make that happen and how we convince people to talk about failure.
Now it's kind of easy after 10, 10 years after, but in that moment, it was. It's super challenging. We decided to make it, to keep it simple. We decided to bring three speakers every night. It was kind of mandatory to have beers in the event. Yeah, it was simple as that, short format between seven and 10 minutes, 10 images in the screen and three speakers and a host.
And we start as the first hosts, of course, because it was our project.
[00:09:53] Athena Hughes: So the setup was intentionally simple to keep the focus on those stories, and the simplicity worked. It was a hit, [00:10:00] and participants were seeing its value.
[00:10:03] Carlos Zimbron: I was talking with a speaker yesterday, and she said like, during the preparation of my, of my story, you know, organising the slides, uh, or the, the, the images, and going back to the, the chats with, with my founders, and with my colleagues, and everyone.
I. understand a lot of things about the story. Like in that moment you just want to close the computer, travel six months and forget about everything. But after that you move some other things that probably you were hiding. And a good way to do it is sharing that in front of 200 people. And also the, the, the empathy that the speaker generates with the, with the audience when you are in other kind of platforms, you know, a TED talk or another kind of conference, you feel really distant from the speaker, you know, like when I'm going to become that person that it's like super successful and have a lot of things at fuck up nights, [00:11:00] it's the opposite, like, I am that guy. You know, immediately when you're in the audience, you feel like the person that is speaking.
[00:11:06] Athena Hughes: Carlos has helped all kinds of organisations with Fuckup Nights, from fintech companies to the South Korean government.
[00:11:13] Carlos Zimbron: I was invited by the government, the Minister of the Interior in Korea.
They prepared and they organised a whole event about failure. Because they were preoccupied about the society in Korea is really focused on, on success. And failure is kind of shameful. I gave a couple of talks and workshops. It's difficult to, to change failure to success, no? That's impossible to do. It depends on, on the, on the person and on the people and their, their own moment and their own context, everything, but you, you can give some tools to overcome that.
And try to renew your mindset and take all those learnings and change it and use it for, [00:12:00] for a better, for a better thing.
[00:12:02] Athena Hughes: And as for what he thinks the government could do to better process failure within their systems, Carlos had this to say.
[00:12:08] Carlos Zimbron: Yeah like, we, in every country, every politician, every president have their moment of like recounting the success of their period, you know, but what about if in that moment also they share their fuck ups? And, and it's, it's a more middle ground message because when you talk a lot and a lot about you in the best way possible, it's kind of, I don't know, I don't trust you because everything is one side.
I have to hear more of the other part. I understand that you want to tell me what you did great, but also what you fail on because the city is not perfect. The country is not perfect. You know, I can, I can tell that. I'm not an expert, but I can tell them [00:13:00] the story is incomplete. And that's basically the origin of our concept.
You know, like we want to hear the complete story from my friend, from my colleague, but also from my, my politicians and my government. And yeah, I think that could be more naturally. and more close to the people, basically.
[00:13:29] Adrian Brown: So, Athena, this is, um, this is such an interesting, uh, approach. Um, and he did, Carlos did just mention that he applied it with the South Korean government, but I can't help thinking that this is, that the South Koreans might be the exception here rather than the rule. How, how could this approach work in government more generally, what do you think ?
[00:13:49] Athena Hughes: Within governments in terms of just kind of the day to day functioning talking about failure can create opportunities for people across different departments to connect with [00:14:00] one another and create opportunities both to just generate that empathy and those connection points and that humanising force. Just for the sake of desiloing a little bit and opening up new channels of connection in sort of the background work, But then also when it comes to leadership and public facing roles and politicians, I think that's a really vital area to talk about failure because people tend to not trust politicians because to use Carlos's parlance of the A sides or B sides, we only ever hear the A sides from politicians and a lot of government leaders, and people tend not to trust that.
But when you talk openly about the places that you failed and what you've learned from it, I think it creates that opportunity to have an inroad to public trust, potentially.
[00:14:51] Adrian Brown: Actually, just so happens that this afternoon, I was looking at some of the proceedings in the UK of the [00:15:00] COVID inquiry that's taking place there.
So there's an inquiry as to, as many countries are doing it, sort of the government's response to COVID and getting into all of the sort of, ins and outs and emails and political intrigues, et cetera, that were happening around the time. And clearly a lot of things went wrong, but it does strike me that the mode of inquiry, even I suppose the name of the COVID inquiry is quite accusatory and it's being conducted by a couple of, uh, Queen's Council's lawyers who are sort of calling witnesses and interrogating them. But that, that approach seems completely different to the, uh, Carlos, uh, Fuckup Nights approach, which is much more, uh, as he said, um, empathetic and, um, and, and collegiate and, and, and, and a willingness to be humble and, and, and share.
I suppose what I'm left thinking from all of that, Athena, is that, is it possible for governments culturally [00:16:00] to go there, because it seems there's so much in the system and you were just listing quite a few reasons why there's so much in the system that would mitigate against the kind of empathetic humility that's required to have an honest conversation about failure in the way that Carlos is advocating for.
[00:16:21] Athena Hughes: Yeah, that's, that's the big challenge, I think, is it's, it's such a complex and deep rooted challenge. Um, I think the kind of benefit that Carlos's approach brings is that it can be a tool that doesn't necessarily have to start from the top or start in the most public facing orientation. Um, I think this is one of those things that part of the change that needs to happen is that openly discussing failure, as you say, in the context of a more, empathetic and not accusatory [00:17:00] context, um, can just kind of embedded in the culture a little bit more to be open and share about failures internally and learn from them, um, and that can help change the tone.
And then at the same time, I think that there are people who have more positions of power that would need to shift their own mindset on how they think about failure and talk about failure. Yeah, it's complicated. I, I think this is one of those situations where something like Fuckup Nights can be a tool in the toolbox and also isn't necessarily going to change everything all on its own.
[00:17:38] Adrian Brown: Yeah, of course. And, and so as we wrap up this, this portion of the podcast, what, what happens next with, uh, with Carlos and Fuckup Nights? What are they, what are their plans for the future?
[00:17:48] Athena Hughes: Well, Fuckup Nights has been a success, but Carlos and his friends are not finished yet. When asked about their plans for the future, Carlos had this to say.
[00:17:58] Carlos Zimbron: Our main goal [00:18:00] is to As an organisation is to disappear because we don't want to be needed. We want to change the paradigm of failure enough to just make failure normal and natural and yeah, we, we, we want to disappear in that, in that, in that terms.
[00:18:19] Adrian Brown: Well, thanks, thanks Athena for, that was, that was a, a fascinating example that, as you say, sort of illustrates what's possible, but also quite how far perhaps much of government and public service is from that kind of philosophy at the moment.
So with that we'll wrap up part one and after the break we'll dive into a case of government failure that you may have heard of, uh, told by a public servant who was there at the time. Policy Advisor to President George W. Bush, Dan Vogel, will talk about Hurricane Katrina after this short break.[00:19:00]
[00:19:06] Dan Vogel: So I'm Dan Vogel, and I've just wrapped up six years as the director for the North America team of the Centre for Public Impact.
[00:19:15] Adrian Brown: So, as Dan just said, he has, uh, been the Director of our North America team for, for many years. I know, I know him very well, but before he was at CPI, he was working in government and, and was associated with the, uh, Hurricane Katrina response.
As many listeners will remember, on the morning of August 29th, 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast of the United States. Katrina was a Category 5 hurricane, and the levees of New Orleans were not equipped to handle a hurricane of this magnitude. And as a result, 80 percent of the city was flooded.
The residents who did not evacuate the city were stranded, and as the government grappled with the magnitude of the disaster, their response to Katrina [00:20:00] remains one of the most infamous examples. of government failure during the Bush administration.
[00:20:07] Dan Vogel: If you're talking about examples of government failure, like no question, Katrina was a profound failure.
It was government at all levels. failing with some pretty catastrophic consequences. So more than a thousand people died. Buildings have collapsed. There are reports from New Orleans of people trapped in buildings that have come down around them. They have made, I remember sitting in the white house in the days after the storm happened and watching these just absolutely horrific images on tv of people who are stranded on highway overpasses or on their rooftops.
SFX: Joe Edwards rushed to get himself and as many neighbours as possible into his truck. They drove to this bridge where they've been living ever since.
Dan Vogel:And there was a certain measure of just thinking how on earth Is this possible in the United States of America in 2005, that people are in this situation?
And then there was a [00:21:00] whole dimension of Katrina as a natural disaster, but also compounded by human failures and government failures, because a lot of the worst damage that happened in New Orleans was a result of the failures of the flood protection system, levees and flood walls, that, that failed, and as a result, 80 percent of the city flooded.
SFX:The city flooded not just with storm water, but with sewage and chemical residue from the plants that surround it.
This is New Orleans. This is downtown New Orleans here. And, uh, I tell you, the last time I covered this, this city, it was full of life. Streets were full of people. Uh, it's a much different story here today.
[00:21:43] Adrian Brown: Athena, I'm not a US citizen, but I was living in America. In 2005, and I remember Hurricane Katrina vividly, what, what do you remember of that time?
[00:21:54] Athena Hughes: So, I was a teenager at the time, uh, but I do have some, [00:22:00] a few strong memories, um, I think it is worth acknowledging that as someone who was living far away, uh, from where Hurricane Katrina hit, who didn't know anyone who was personally impacted at the time, um, and, and also, frankly, as a… white American. My experience of it was more removed. I think for a lot of people, it was either directly traumatising because they were directly hit by what happened. And for a lot of people, it also triggered, um, different elements of historical and racial trauma.
For me, What I most remember is seeing news reports for, as I remember it, weeks after, of reports on really awful conditions in the Superdome where people had gone to shelter, um, seeing a lot of footage of people who were stranded on their rooftops, uh, from the flooding, and then also the moment where Kanye West said on live television that George Bush doesn't care about Black people. Um, that ended up being one of my stronger memories of the response to Hurricane Katrina and the fallout, and I think it's one of those things where, you know, whether or not that was true on an individual level, and regardless of how you might feel about Kanye in the years since, I think he was speaking to a broader issue of the fact that historically, the government at large didn't care about Black people, and that certainly shaped my growing political understanding at the time.
[00:23:36] Adrian Brown: And of course, Dan and colleagues sitting in the White House were also watching all of this footage and also listening to what Kanye, uh, was saying and, and perhaps also looking around the room and thinking, well, we're, we're not the most diverse group of people either, so, so they were probably thinking many of the same things that you were just saying there, Athena.
What happened next? What did, uh, take us [00:24:00] forward in the story with Dan?
[00:24:01] Athena Hughes: So, the footage of the events unfolding in New Orleans shocked Dan into action. He ended up becoming the representative of the federal government in New Orleans and worked with other representatives to help the city recover.
[00:24:13] Dan Vogel: So I went down to Mississippi, I think initially, with Mrs.Bush, and I just remember being totally bowled over by the enormity of seeing the devastation firsthand and just feeling the human cost of it and just feeling this sense of I need to be involved in this. And so yeah, it was at that point that I switched over to work for that office.
On an ongoing basis, you were there as the representative of the federal government and keenly aware of what that meant, like walking into a number of spaces where again, government had fallen on its face.
And I think there was a double dimension of it that wasn't just the failure in the aftermath of the storm. Especially in new Orleans, we were in an environment where there had been years of government action and other factors that were at play in how that [00:25:00] city worked, that perpetuated harm, there was deep racial injustice, all of those things created this deep seated distrust.
And so yeah, you were aware of that walking into every meeting. It was sort of a measure of like, I've got a... figure out how do I earn people's trust when they probably don't have any real reason to trust me?
[00:25:23] Athena Hughes: Turned out that rebuilding the city was the more straightforward problem. In this part of America, government failure was nothing new.
So in order to rebuild the city, Dan also had to rebuild trust with citizens.
[00:25:36] Dan Vogel: It was often this deeply human encounter. It was like a measure of how do you show up in a way that demonstrates to people that you care about them, you are authentically committed to helping them, that you want to understand their perspective, and you're going to do everything in your power because we, we did wield considerable power to affect the outcomes that matter to them.
And so that was like, I have to both be faithful in small [00:26:00] things. If I say I'm going to do something, I have to be able to follow up on actually doing that small thing. And then at a larger level, at the end of the day, we had to deliver the goods. Are we able to actually, whether it was expediting the rebuilding of a certain school building or hospital facility or something like that, those things really mattered if we were to, if we had success and ultimately following through or not.
Like that was, that was what we were up against in a, in a deeply distrusting environment.
[00:26:26] Athena Hughes: So how did they help New Orleans?
[00:26:28] Dan Vogel: There was a whole set of kind of after action learning that said like, how do we think about especially that kind of mega disaster differently and prepare for it? I think what was more interesting for me and probably work that I was closer to was the kind of on the fly learning and adaptation that was happening,
Because again, we were operating in an environment where our role as the federal coordinating office was to say, how do you interface with a bunch of other government agencies, housing and urban development, FEMA, the core of engineers, the department [00:27:00] of health and human services, they're responsible for doing a given thing in the, in the wake of a disaster.
And there's like a set of protocols that they're supposed to follow. And there were plenty of instances where we all looked at and said like that protocol just doesn't make any sense. It's not going to work. It's not fit for this purpose. Can we find a creative workaround with how we were not going to break the law, but we're going to do the things that we need to do to actually like deliver the outcome that's needed in this situation.
There was a whole collection of that sort of, how do you learn in the face of something not working or something clearly not being what's needed in this situation. I think the other dimension of learning was probably around, you know, you have a hundred billion dollars flowing down to these, to these states and communities.
And I think a lot of time, our mindset was how do we use that as a catalyst for reform? How do you say, especially in environments where a lot of the social systems in these places were deeply broken. There was, you know, deeply entrenched poverty and [00:28:00] segregation and terrible outcomes and a whole host of measures that mattered.
And so the systems like education and healthcare before the storm just did not work well for people. The mindset of everybody who was involved in that rebuilding effort, in government, in philanthropy, it was, it was like a citizen led civic action kind of a thing was to say, how do you use this moment to adapt and experiment and do things that we might not have ever considered possible before the storm?
And, and I, and I think at least on the part of government, we tried to say, can we set the table for that? By saying like, you know, creatively making money available and, and essentially saying, Hey, if you're a reformer, whether it's in education or healthcare, come on down to new Orleans. Like this is a place where you can try some things where you can have a chance to experiment in different ways because we're rebuilding these systems kind of from the ground up.
Some of those things worked really well. The education experiment is probably the most well known. They had some of the worst student outcomes in the entire country before the storm - still have a lot of challenges, but it made like really meaningful improvements on [00:29:00] some dimensions there. There were other things that we tried that didn't work at all, but there was that kind of, uh, that sort of how do we take this moment as a way of doing things differently was like, I think, a key, a key part of how we were trying to approach the work.
[00:29:14] Adrian Brown: There was a lot in there, uh, in Dan's, uh, in Dan's explanation. Two things stand out for me. One is this importance of having an experimental or an adaptive mindset, which I suppose is another way of talking about failure, but on a hopefully on a sort of micro level where you're making small mistakes, learning from them, adapting and improving and then the other big theme seems to be around trust and legitimacy, which is something we've talked about on this podcast before.
But, uh, the, is the requirement to have [00:30:00] trust as the foundation upon which you could experiment or you could, um, uh, garner support from across communities, civil society and others to actually be part of the process and feel there's mutual trust between all involved rather than it being fundamentally a situation where people are not, are not really trusting one another and particularly not trusting the federal government.
So Athena, what, what are your reflections on that? Both the sort of experimental mindset aspect and the trust aspect, what Dan was talking about.
[00:30:38] Athena Hughes: Yeah, I think it's the experimental mindset part is interesting because Dan's describing sort of a situation where there's such a major crisis situation that it did enable the systems that already existed to open up the way they do things, not [00:31:00] just enable.
In many ways, like, forced them to change the way they were doing things, so it sort of forced a situation that was more open to experimentation than it otherwise might be. And it sounds like within that there were a lot of opportunities to make new connections with people who maybe hadn't been involved in those systems before, um, or, or try new things, and, and like you said, make those smaller incremental failures that you can then learn from and change your approach when there isn't such a rigid apparatus kind of governing how things are done. And I can see how there would be potential within that as well to forge new, potentially more trusting relationships just by virtue of working together in situations where teams and departments and communities maybe hadn't been working together previously.
Um, and at the same time, in order to get [00:32:00] buy in for that experimentation, you need a certain baseline level, level of trust, especially when working with citizens who may not be in a position to be feeling particularly trusting so and Dan talked about this some. I think it was sort of a two directional thing where you have to establish trust with people on the ground, in part by acknowledging where or the government has already failed in this situation before entering into those more collaborative relationships.
So it's, it's, it's very complicated. One question that comes to mind for me is, is how can you create that space where there is willingness to experiment. The tight restrictions or doing things the way they've always been done isn't such a heavy pressure and kind of opens up those opportunities to experiment. Before getting to that extreme crisis situation where people are dead and have lost their homes and are traumatised. Like, how can we get in way before it ever reaches that point, but bring those same [00:33:00] lessons in.
[00:33:01] Dan Vogel: I think it's an experience of a lot of 20 somethings or 30 somethings working in government where you're like, wow. The work that I'm doing really does matter profoundly to a lot of people. And if I get this right or wrong, that it has real consequences for people's lives.
I think that can also be something that maybe traps people in, okay, I'm going to like. Take the really low risk. I'm not going to mess it up sort of way of thinking and working. And I think that's, again, that's natural human tendency to think, to think that way in a sort of like, I want to be lower risk because the stakes are high, which is true in any government environment.
We need to inculcate more. How do we push against that natural human instinct? And I think, especially there's like a, an outsized responsibility for a leader to think about how do you set a different kind of tone? That's actually going to give a chance for people to think differently about the risk that they're willing to take in a public sector environment.
Because we're naturally, like, [00:34:00] extraordinarily risk averse, and that's generally bad for, for a lot of, like, you know, um, getting government to do things better on some of the things that really matter.
[00:34:11] Athena Hughes: One thing that I think Dan points out here that's really important to keep in mind is where that risk aversion within government can come from.
The decisions that are made in government and the actions that government take have real impacts on people's lives. And so failure has... real consequences for people. I think that that's an essential issue to keep at the forefront, even as we explore being more open to failure and experimentation in government.
I think a lot of the time, when there's too much of a focus on experimentation and disruption for its own sake, there can be a tendency to lose sight of the fact that the decisions you make do impact people. Um, and at the same time, think about where are we already failing by not being [00:35:00] willing to change, rather than the potential for failure that comes with experimentation and making change. And kind of holding both things in our minds at the same time.
[00:35:11] Adrian Brown: That's, that's a great point. And I, the way I've thought about this in the past is the difference between what you might call chronic failure or the chronic cost of failure and an acute failure. So, um, just in the example that we're talking about here, you know, Katrina itself was an acute crisis, which just.
Shattered a lot of expectations and systems and organisations and, and, and physical levees. So it was a, it was an immediate and acute crisis, which led to a lot of acute failures. But also Dan talked about some of the chronic failure in the system so that that wasn't just triggered by Katrina, but the years and years and years of underperformance of the school system, for example. And it's the cost [00:36:00] of that chronic failure, which can often go less noticed, I suppose, or or perhaps it's easier for people to just say, Well, look, that's just the way it is. It's just an underperforming system and sort of throw their hands up. Uh, if we're not willing to experiment, I suppose, to try and improve those chronic failures, the cost of that over years and years and years can be extraordinarily high, and I suppose is. Is it is that bit less visible as a result of the, uh, the sort of background nature of that failure versus the sudden shock of a, of a, of an immediate crisis, which, which, of course, gets all the attention and, and everyone's eyes are on it immediately.
[00:36:43] Athena Hughes: Absolutely. I think, yeah, drawing that distinction between chronic failure and acute failure is a really helpful way to think about it and bring into. The way that we think about experimentation and willingness to fail, um, and where we're already failing. [00:37:00] So Dan also makes the point that a big part of failure is how we respond to it, especially when we're in a position of power.
When asked his thoughts on how the government should deal with failure, this was his response.
[00:37:12] Dan Vogel: I think in government, it's, it's, it's really, really hard, right? Because of part of what we already talked about, the reality of the consequences of our work having direct impact on people and communities. And so that naturally creates a ton of pressure.
And, and you're in an environment of like real public visibility. So you make a mistake, it's not just going to be limited to you and maybe those people who are affected, it's probably also going to be amplified to the newspaper or on social media or in any number of places, right. So that environment of scrutiny, especially in the times where we live, right, where trust in institutions is pretty much at an all time low.
And people are naturally already inclined to say, I have no faith that government can actually do this thing that [00:38:00] I expect them to do. That cynicism is, is rampant. And so all of those things collectively, it's, it makes sense why it creates an environment where if you're, if you're in the seat of a public leader, a public servant of consequence and the failure happens, your impulse is probably to, to try to sweep it away, to try to play it down or cover it up.
Not out of like malintent, right? But it's just sort of, again, a natural human instinct. It's easy also then for a leader to say like, we won't tolerate failure and kind of have that kind of a posture. And the result of that is, again, often just a bunch of behavior that's going to have people trying to cover things up as opposed to saying, you know what, there are failures happening all around us.
How do we actually lean into that? And create an environment where we can learn and adapt in response to failure. How can we, how can we do that differently next time, as opposed to just pretend it didn't happen and [00:39:00] then do the same thing over and over again, potentially then having that build and build and build to be a more catastrophic or meaningful failure, right?
So if you can get it further upstream with smaller failures, that, that can go a long way. But, but I think that runs counter to a lot of how lots of people in government think. And how they're incentivised to work. There's a lot of things that have to come together for that to work differently. I do think it starts with the leader and the tone that they set.
And what are they telling their people? How are they, how are they communicating across the team? What's the culture that their environment, the environment that they're creating, that, that shapes how people show up and how they work. Talking openly about it in the way that you guys are doing on this podcast that CPI has done with a bunch of its work over time, that it, it, it creates room for a different kind of conversation where people can acknowledge and then say, great, maybe that, like, how do we actually experiment with some different ways of how we want to operate in response to that?
And in doing so, I would argue, we're [00:40:00] gonna, we're gonna yield more of that kind of learning that fosters more innovation that ultimately, again, delivers the goods, which is what people care about. People at the end of the day want government to do the things that they expect government should do for them.
People should hold government to really high standards, right? So I would love to see more and more governments embrace that kind of, that kind of mindset and way of, way of thinking, but I understand why it's hard to do that.
[00:40:23] SFX: Drilling sounds.
[00:40:40] Adrian Brown: Now, just before we finish up. Uh, Athena, I think you've got one more example, uh, which is a little closer to home.
[00:40:47] Athena Hughes: That's right. Uh, let me introduce you to Kelly Sifford.
[00:40:51] Kelly Sifford: So I am Kelly Sifford. I am the Assistant County Manager in Cabarrus County, North Carolina.
[00:40:57] Athena Hughes: Kelly worked on planning and building regulators within [00:41:00] the county.
[00:41:01] Kelly Sifford: Ten years I had been working on a technology. Improvement that I couldn't seem to make happen.
[00:41:06] Athena Hughes: Failing Forward helped Kelly and her approach to her technology issue. Rather than focusing on the tech, Kelly and her team found it useful to reframe it as a process and people issue.
[00:41:17] Kelly Sifford: We thought we were doing fine, and until we started asking a lot of questions, we did not know that we were failing in that aspect. Um, it would have never occurred to me because we, you know, we put them out there, they, if we trained them, they, you know, knew how to use the system. They did this, they did that. But, you know, it wasn't the most efficient way. But because. I guess nobody was really giving us the feedback, the feedback is what we really needed and it took a while for us to even get them to provide the feedback. They, they were not comfortable with it.
Inspectors in particular, who are our biggest users, they work alone. They're out in the field. They're a pretty self sufficient group and I think they just thought, okay, we'll fix it and move on.
You know, they were trying to [00:42:00] be a good employee. Everybody had the best intentions, but in the end, it was not the best results. And I think we needed the format that Failing Forward provided where it's kind of like how the military handles things, they break you down and then they build you back up. And so we see things a totally different way now, um, when we're approaching everything, we ask a lot more questions. We send out surveys to find out make sure we do understand the issue because sometimes we think we understand the issue but we don't
[00:42:30] Adrian Brown: This is a programme actually that CPI has had for quite a few years called called Failing Forward as as Kelly was explaining there Athena perhaps you could just explain a bit more what the Failing Forward programme actually is, uh, and, uh, and how we worked with Kelly in this case.
[00:42:49] Athena Hughes: Essentially, the idea behind Failing Forward is to help government teams build that learning mindset and openness to failure and [00:43:00] experimentation into their programmes and processes, and build in points to ask deeper questions about not only what's going wrong, but why isn't this working? And what are we missing in order to kind of go upstream in finding a solution?
Uh, while also being open to not getting things right the first time around.
[00:43:24] Adrian Brown: Well, let's just hear finally how Failing Forward has changed Kelly's view of failure.
[00:43:30] Kelly Sifford: I think about it more now. I was never one to hang on to it too much. I grew up playing sports and you know, you gotta... Just forget it and go on to the next play.
Um, and so I was pretty good with that. But what I think now is I think deeper about how that failure happened and what could have prevented that more than just fixing the problem. Because I've always been quick to fix the problem, make the customer [00:44:00] happy, solve the problem move them on and not as much figure out long term process wise other than saying to everybody, hey, you know this happened. This is what we should do. You know not really thinking process wise or training wise behind that and making sure that we have more of a playbook in place for everything.
[00:44:27] Adrian Brown: So I think for me, what connects what Kelly was talking about and what we heard from Dan and from Carlos earlier is a lot to do with a mindset shift where the way we think about failure, the way we talk about failure, the time we give to reflect on and and learn from failure is just different. And we have a lot of room to to change the sort of status quo, which is often around not talking about failure, pushing it to one side, being embarrassed about it, [00:45:00] forgetting it, trying to quick fix, rather than think more deeply. And that seems to be, yeah, those seem to be themes through, through all of the speakers that we've heard today, Athena.
[00:45:10] Athena Hughes: Yeah, I thought one thing that was really interesting, um, that Kelly talked about was, was talking about the mindset around failure on her team was one that was theoretically open to addressing mistakes and small problems and just fixing it and being ready to go.
And that she had to shift the mindset around failure of being, let's actually dig into it more deeply. The other thing being that employees out in the field were approaching failure as, let me find a solution that is going to be a quick work around. I won't run it up the flag because that's going to take more time.It's going to be more inefficient or whatever the case may be.
And by not talking about those failures, even just in an informative feedback context and dealing with it on their own, it [00:46:00] made it harder for the whole team to identify systematic problems and fix them more effectively in the long term.
So that required a mindset shift as well as being more open to giving feedback as well as creating channels to provide it.
[00:46:15] Adrian Brown: Yeah, it's almost like, are we willing to sit with failure? I suppose just to, uh, to be comfortable in the presence of failure to put it that way is like, how can we spend some time getting to know failure,
feeling comfortable with failure, talking about failure? Because if we can't do that, we're never going to get beyond the surface, quick fix type of response.
Adrian Brown: Okay, so that concludes this episode of Reimagining Government. Thanks again to my co host for this episode, Athena Hughes. As we said at the beginning, we're going to do it as live all the way through and I, suspect Graeme has made zero edits to this podcast that you're hearing in finished form.
So a remarkable achievement by [00:47:00] Athena and myself to make it all the way through.
If you're a public servant or a policymaker, we want to hear from you. How do you think governments should approach failure? And you can now call into the show. This is very exciting, new innovation on our part, uh, through an answer machine, which, uh, for those of you who are a little younger than me is actually something that we used to have back in the day, but apparently we now have a new digital version of.
If you head over to squeakpipe. com forward slash, forward, let me try that again. If you head over to squeakpipe. com forward slash reimagining government, and leave us a message, I will personally, and I promise this, will listen to every single one that we receive.So do that. That is,
- oh sorry, speakpipe. Ha ha ha ha. www.speakpipe.com/reimagininggovernment I'll be surprised if anyone can make it there given I haven't been able to say the words hopefully that link is in the show notes so you're not relying on me to be [00:48:00] able to dictate it to you and as I say I will listen to all those messages as will others at CPI.
If you prefer to write to us you can email email@example.com to let us know the topics that we should cover in future episodes. And finally, please do leave us as a review. I've been told this is enormously important for our rankings and our ratings as a podcast. If you can leave us a review, good, bad, indifferent, whatever you want to say on your favourite podcast platform, please do that and let us know your thoughts on the series.
Uh, but until next time, I've been Adrian Brown. Thanks for listening and goodbye.
Athena Hughes: Squeak pipe.
Adrian Brown: Squeak pipe. Hahahahaha.
🎙️ Reimagining Government
This podcast explores radical new approaches to addressing global issues such as the climate crisis, equitable healthcare provision, and rebuilding trust with marginalised communities.
By speaking with public servants and politicians at the heart of government, we’ll shine a light on how to reimagine government so it works for everyone.