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Jul 06, 2017

From fail-safe to safe-to-fail

July 6, 2017

Creating a Ministry of Failure in Canadian government

Failure is not an option for government. Public dollars are at stake. Political leaders expect perfection in program design and policy thinking to preserve their re-election hopes. Civil servants hoping to move up the career ladder are loathe to admit mistakes. Yet, if governments don’t fail sometimes, how can they successfully tackle the cross-cutting, complex issues that increasingly bedevil society?

Despite endless discussions at conferences and internal strategy sessions about the need for innovation, the public service remains characterized by a culture of risk aversion. Conversations with senior public servants reveal frustration with systems oriented towards the status quo. At an organizational level, the story is much the same. For example, the 2017 Ontario Public Service employee survey found that only 52% of employees felt encouraged to take reasonable risks and 55% believed that innovation was valued in the workplace.

Sunil Johal, Policy Director at the Mowat Centre, proposes that every level of government in Canada establish a Ministry of Failure.

Thankfully, the potential exists for an institutional response to this culture of risk aversion. Drawing on the strategies of successful private firms, Canadian governments should create Ministries of Failure– central teams of policy innovators that operate independently to help other ministries design and execute strategic risks in programming and service delivery.

Encouraging failure in policy-making does not mean neglecting program commitments or abdicating organizational responsibilities. Allowing policymakers to fail without the immediate fear of political or professional scrutiny grants them the opportunity to experiment with new ideas which may have otherwise been rejected.

Not only can this space breed creativity, but it also can allow public servants to “fail forward” and have the willingness and confidence to iterate better and bolder policy ideas. Indeed, this is precisely what is necessary as we face more and more wicked problems. While solutions may be difficult to formulate in a linear, risk-averse policy environment, a Ministry mandated to experiment – and to learn from earlier failures – is perfectly positioned to promote a culture of strategic and intelligent risk-taking that can spur innovation.

Giving public servants and politicians the authority to fail is a necessary step in achieving the innovation we all hope the public sector can deliver.

A Ministry of Failure also creates new forms of both political and bureaucratic transparency. Acknowledging that failure is tolerated, and even expected, highlights the iterative process behind much of our current policy development and implementation. This can inoculate governments from the political backlash against policy failures, as this Ministry will be clearly defined by and operate with the expectation of trial and error.

We cannot ignore the importance of political ownership over failure. A Minister of Education, when push comes to shove, is going to privilege student achievement results over innovative strategies being promoted by an internal innovation shop. A Minister of Failure who is tasked with trying new ideas with the knowledge some will fail is far more likely to push for those new approaches and push against the boundaries of incremental group-think.

Failure-tolerance, however, is not absolute. A Ministry of Failure would abide by the same standards that guide any other government bureaucracy, but would treat failed ideas with an even-handed, genuine curiosity about the lessons learned and how to move forward. Critically, lessons from failures would be fed into government-wide channels to inform policy and program delivery. If you’re expected to fail, you’re happy to share with others what you’ve learned. When you’re expected to be error-free, your mistakes are hidden away and the value of those lessons is lost forever.

For some private firms, failure is already treated as a rite of passage – a gateway to innovation and growth. Tata, India’s largest conglomerate, holds an annual competition for the Best Failed Idea to communicate to its employees the importance of trying, potentially failing, but subsequently learning from their mistakes. Roche, the third largest pharmaceutical company in the world, has a CEO who holds celebration lunches for failed experiments to further encourage risk-taking in an inherently risky business.

Giving public servants and politicians the authority to fail is a necessary step in achieving the innovation we all hope the public sector can deliver. Expecting perfectly formed, error-free approaches to suddenly emerge and solve thorny public policy problems is unrealistic. Let’s move forward with the ambition to fail, fail some more and ultimately begin to tackle Canada’s biggest challenges.

As Canada marks its 150th birthday this year, Canadians have a historic opportunity not only to celebrate a century and a half of accomplishments, but also to look forward to what we can achieve in the future. The Mowat Centre is releasing a series of short written pieces and video interviews in the weeks leading up to July 1st that will look ahead and present a variety of bold, potentially transformative policy ideas.

More Bold Ideas


Sunil Johal

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