Ten thoughts from ten years in the Public Sector; #8 Failure…

…why it is seldom acknowledged and why this is bad for all of us

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Positive thinking in some quarters has turned into a lens through which we avoid seeing any wrong.  The phrase opportunity to improve is often used in place of failing to deliver, and it is true that both phrases can be used to refer to the same situation.  In many public sector circles the former is seen as the domain of positive thinkers whilst the latter is associated with unwarranted pessimism; a seemingly undesirable quality in the people we think we require around us.  But at the point and in the places at which reality needs to be confronted, it is important that the right language is chosen, because this will have the best chance of generating the required action.  And sometimes this means talking openly in terms of recognising a failure to perform, rather than talking about an opportunity to improve.  Openly acknowledging failure creates a sense of urgency, it generates a climate in which we all know that something needs to be dealt with, whilst talking of opportunities to improve is often interpreted as something to be placed halfway down next weeks to do list; it will wait while something more urgent jumps the queue of priorities.  But thinking positively was never supposed to mean the same as seeing the world through rose coloured glasses.  Thinking positively includes recognising and confronting the reality you face; i.e. looking at the road-signs, searching for landmarks, recognising that you may be lost and understanding that you need a compass and a map.  Thinking positively should not be confused with ignoring reality; i.e. ignoring the road-signs and landmarks, not really wanting to know if you are lost and not caring that you might be.

The reason that failure is seldom if ever acknowledged in the Public Sector is that the Public Sector feels unable to talk about well intentioned failures or those times that things didn’t go according to plan.  There is too much oversight and political pressure from managers and ministers who’s careers depend on always being right.  The irony of this being that the more they continue to talk the talk the less credibility they have.  Everyone knows that not everything goes according to plan and to pretend otherwise is an insult to our intelligence.

Of course the danger in never acknowledging failure is that you don’t learn the important lessons that are to be learned, you continue to do the same old things because you are stuck in a system that doesn’t let you recognise how you can improve.  Learning from doing has never been high on any government agenda due to the constant need for each party to decry the efforts of each other and disprove each other’s claims.  This can’t be good for public services.

Losing an illusion makes you wiser than finding a truth. Ludwig Borne

We need a greater degree of honesty in the debate about how to measure the impact of spending public money.  The honesty in this debate can only start when we recognise our ignorance in this area.  Our knowledge about economies in general is an evolving work in progress and our knowledge about what happens when governments use taxpayers money to intervene in the workings of society is still at an incredibly early stage; there is probably still more that we don’t know than we do.  Where public money is used to intervene then the measures we choose to use should themselves be seen as work in progress and should offer society the opportunity for learning from their implementation.  Measures (outputs and targets) should not be seen as things to be achieved at all costs.  One of the primary goals of any publicly funded intervention should be the gathering of learning from which we can all benefit.

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