We need a safe space for policy failure

Catherine Althaus & David Threlfall in The Mandarin: “Who remembers Google Schemer, the Apple Pippin, or Microsoft Zune? No one — and yet such no-go ideas didn’t hold back these prominent companies. In IT, such high profile failures are simply steps on the path to future success. When a start-up or major corporate puts a product onto the market they identify the kinks in their invention immediately, design a fix, and release a new version. If the whole idea falls flat — and who ever listened to music on a Zune instead of an iPod? — the next big thing is just around the corner. Learning from failure is celebrated as a key feature of innovation.

But in the world of public policy, this approach is only now creeping into our collective consciousness. We tread ever so lightly.

Drug policy, childcare reform, or information technology initiatives are areas where innovation could provide policy improvements, but who is going to be a first-mover innovator in this policy area without fearing potential retribution should anything go wrong?…

Public servants don’t have the luxury of ‘making a new version’ without fear of blame or retribution. Critically, their process often lacks the ability to test assumptions before delivery….

The most persuasive or entertaining narrative often trumps the painstaking work — and potential missteps — required to build an evidence base to support political and policy decisions. American academics Elizabeth Shanahan, Mark McBeth and Paul Hathaway make a remarkable claim regarding the power of narrative in the policy world: “Research in the field of psychology shows that narratives have a stronger ability to persuade individuals and influence their beliefs than scientific evidence does.” If narrative and stories overtake what we normally accept as evidence, then surely we ought to be taking more notice of what the narratives are, which we choose and how we use them…

Failing the right way

Essential policy spheres such as health, education and social services should benefit from innovative thinking and theory testing. What is necessary in these areas is even more robust attention to carefully calibrated and well-thought through experimentation. Rewards need to outweigh risks, and risks need to be properly managed. This has always been the case in clinical trials in medicine. Incredible breakthroughs in medical practice made throughout the 20th century speak to the success of this model. Why should policymaking suffer from a timid inertia given the potential for similar success?

An innovative approach, focused on learning while failing right, will certainly require a shift in thinking. Every new initiative will need to be designed in a holistic way, to not just solve an issue but learn from every stage of the design and delivery process. Evaluation doesn’t follow implementation but instead becomes part of the entire cycle. A small-scale, iterative approach can then lead to bigger successes down the track….(More)”.