Good Failure and Bad Failure in Public Sector Innovation

A significant report was released last week on Australian public sector innovation. It’s called “Empowering Change” and I think it represents a blueprint for an important sector that has traditionally had a very fragmented approach to innovation. In Australia it represents 30% of the economy and delivers services that are vital to the well-being of the nation. Future challenges such as education, health, water, indigenous reconciliation, the digital economy and energy will have to be met by public sector innovation in some way and often in partnership with the private sector. On the blog we talk about the net present value of innovation being survival and perhaps this holds true for public sector innovation as well. But we are not talking about the survival of the public service itself but rather the survival of the nation.

I think that Empowering Change succeeds because it is quite programmatic in its recommendations. Rather than delivering some vague statements on innovation that could apply both anywhere and nowhere, the document sets out how managers could start an innovation program with the crucial elements of idea generation, selection and execution. In may ways it is more like an innovation handbook than a report. Many of the tools that we talk about on the blog such as stage gate, three horizons, innovation jams and linking innovation to strategy all feature in the toolkit that is recommended in the document.

Something that I find interesting is the apparently huge negative impact that risk and failure have on the willingness to engage with innovation. Statements such as the following are common, particularly from more senior managers. Empowering Changes takes this quote from a US study, but there is no reason to believe that the problem isn’t universal.

Challengers, legislators, and the media concentrate almost exclusively on failure. Failure is news. It generates controversy, particularly about who was responsible, and can be portrayed as scandalous. (Altshuler, 1997, p. 48).

However, according to an Australian Public Service Commission survey over 80% of respondents agreed that they liked to try new ideas at work and less than 40% felt that they wanted to try new ideas but the public sector discouraged risk taking. This sounds like a lot, but its actually pretty low when you think about organizations in the private sector where a risk with a bad outcome can cost you your job. The public sector wants to be innovative but I suspect that the gradual politicization of the public service has brought it closer to the orbit of the party machine with the obsession with the news cycle and the short-term thinking of the Australian three-year election cycle. Here in Brisbane, our public service colleagues talk about the “Courier Mail” test, referring to the local newspaper that loves a good scandal to prop up its steadily declining sales. Tim’s advice to this ‘test’ goes something like “who cares- nobody reads the thing anyway”, which is probably correct.

Innovation means accepting the possibility of failure. As we have said before, ideally this means failing quickly and on a small scale with staging and experimentation, but it is failure nonetheless. The problem with politicization and risk aversion is that all failure becomes bad and the important concept of successful failure turns into an oxymoron. An example of what I am talking about is currently being played out in the Australian media.

When the magnitude of the global financial crisis became apparent after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the advice of treasury officials to government was to spend big and spend on households, who were more likely to inject the money into the economy. Rapid action was required with a range of innovative programes. Nearly two years later, Australia enjoys one of the best economic positions of any developed country with an unemployment rate below 6%, rising consumer confidence and a projected return to budget surplus within a few years rather than the possibility of several decades faced by the US and many European countries.

However, some spending programs have failed and in some consequences, the failure has been catastrophic. When the goverment announced a scheme for free roof insulation to save both energy and trade jobs, it seemed like a good idea. What eventuated was poorly intalled products that were often a fire hazard and in some cases caused electrocution of the untrained installers who put staples through wires in the ceiling. Even in this tragic instance there is the possibility of good failure. By this I mean an analysis of what happened and the possibility of shared learnings for the future rather than persecution and public embarassment. Even with my limited knowledge it seems that there are two key factors behind the failure that have implications for any future program.

One of these is that there were examples of failed schemes like this in other countries – even as close as New Zealand. Looking outside to see what others are doing before trying sometng yourself is always a good principle of innovation. The other is that generating an idea is easy, but executing is a major part of risk and needs to be handled by experienced people who are well resources. The insulation program was handled by the Department of Environment who had no experience in building codes and accreditation. These are important notes for future public sector innovators but I fear that without the imperative to learn from these failures we will be making the same mistakes in the future AND perpetuating risk aversion.

Good failure requires courage and leadership. As “Empowering Change” suggests, strong leadership is vital for embedding innovation in the public sector.

Leaders, especially agency heads and SES staff, set the tone – they have a big influence on the culture and attitudes within an organization. Through their actions, leaders can make clear that innovation is an issue of some priority and is valued and rewarded within an agency. If agency leaders show no interest in innovation, that also sends a clear message to staff. If we want a more innovative public sector, it is incumbent on public sector leaders to encourage the generation, adoption and implementation of new ideas.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

3 thoughts on “Good Failure and Bad Failure in Public Sector Innovation

  1. Nice post John. I think you’re spot-on about why the insulation scheme ran into difficulty. But what makes this even more interesting is when you look at this as a case of innovation meets the courier mail test: the stats (produced by Possum over at Crikey) actually suggest that the scheme reduced fires and increased safety standards in the industry:

    Ouch! No wonder the courier mail test is so prevalent.

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