in Politics

Should failure be the new black?

On Wednesday I attended a Local Government Leadership debate on ‘the next big thing’. After a thought provoking morning session on the problems caused by the deficit the afternoon’s cross-party panel discussion proved disappointing.

It is, perhaps, a sign that somethings never change and the panel seemed more intent on talking about the past and having digs at other parties. If there was any conclusion on what the next big thing should be it was that it was localism. Of course, that was also the last big thing. And the current big thing. So it isn’t a particularly novel answer.

Now it always easy to criticise. Which set me wondering what my contribution would be. The easy get out is to say that, actually, it is localism. Or if it isn’t, it’s something that will be a result of localism. Someone, somewhere, will by design or accident stumble on the next big thing and it will be like council house sales were to the 80s. But that’s too easy a get out. So I’m going to say the next big thing should be failure, or at least permission to fail.

Failure is seen as negative, something to be avoided and while I wouldn’t suggest councils should deliberately set out to fail. I believe that we need a culture change which accepts that failures are a necessary part of progress and improvement rather than buying into a Daily Mail or Taxpayers’ Alliance style agenda of knee jerk condemnation of local authorities that might not always achieve what they set out to do.

There are two aspects to this.

First is that localism will inevitably result in some failures. Not every group of parents can run a school, not every neighbourhood group will keep a community centre going. Part of giving up control of an asset or service means that you also give up the ability to stop failure. But this is not a reason to abandon principles like localism. Giving people the right to run their own services also means giving them the right to fail to run their own services; if the government or councils can’t fully let go of control then it isn’t localism, but just another form of contracting out services.

Second is the innovation has always been accompanied by failure. A quick Google will bring up lots of examples, from champagne (failure to make ordinary wine) to Post-It notes (failure to make a strong glue). One of my favourite stories is of new Coke – an episode I just about remember from childhood – when the recipe was changed to a ‘new and improved formula’. That I have vague memories of it, despite the recipe not being changed in the UK and that it happened when I was young indicates the perceived enormity of the episode.

In the 80s Coke, as ever battling with Pepsi for soft drink dominance, introduced a new, sweeter version of the drink. Despite having won taste tests during development it was a disaster for the company and the public demanded, and after a few months, got the multi-national company to back-track and restore the old version.

However, despite being seen as a costly mistake Coca-Cola are today more of a market leader than they ever were and not a single person lost their job over the debacle.

This seems incredible. Development of the drink alone cost millions, before you even consider the costs of twice changing the manufacturing techniques and publicity surrounding the changes. But the company’s view was that to be a market leader they had to be prepared to innovate and take risks. Firing people because one of those risky innovations didn’t work (despite all the prior evidence and research that said it would) would only encourage stagnation as future executives played it safe.

I’ve repeatedly stated that I can see the positives from the deficit because it will result in new and innovative ways of providing services and involving residents. But that will also mean that some new things will be tried that won’t work. Edison’s famous quote was that he had never failed, he just found 10,000 ways that didn’t work. Of course, he didn’t try any of those 10,000 failures because he wanted them to fail, he tried them because it was worth the effort to get to the 10,001st one that did work.

Just the same as technology, local government will have to try new ways of working. And while we can do all we can to ensure success and manage risks we mustn’t allow a fear of failure to stifle innovation.

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