We all need to utter the F word sometimes

Written by Sam Trendall on 17 October 2018 in Opinion

PublicTechnology editor Sam Trendall looks at the public sector’s vexed relationship with failure

Photo: Pixabay

A quick internet search for famous quotes relating to ‘failure’ brings forth a multitude of maxims about the instructive power of things going wrong.

Everyone from Ellen DeGeneres to Thomas Edison – via Johnny Cash and JK Rowling – has had something to say about the other F word. 

And most of them are saying pretty much the exact same thing: that failure is an inevitable occasional by-product of trying to do something worthwhile. Encountering it should prompt us to proceed and progress, rather than regret and retreat – or so the popular wisdom seems to have it.

Edison’s reported quote – while possibly slightly apocryphal – perhaps encapsulates this sentiment best.

“I have not failed,” the inventor said. “I have found 10,000 ways that do not work.”

Such sanguineness is, of course, much easier to advocate than to adopt – particularly in the public sector.

Failure is never welcomed but, for most companies, it is at least an accepted corollary of the risks inherent in doing business. And risk itself is a toxin that commercial organisations typically have a considerably higher tolerance for than their government counterparts.

Public-sector entities are funded by taxpayers’ money, and exist to provide front-line citizen services – often to those who most need and value the support of the state. This is not an environment in which risk is encouraged. Failure, even less so.

But, in its drive to digitise public services and increase its openness to emerging technology, the government is pursuing the principles and practices of an industry where failure is – in theory at least – to be greeted like an old friend. The ‘fail fast’ model that serves as the bedrock of agile software development has extended beyond the technical sphere to become something of a mantra for the wider technology sector. 

But the thousands of digital professionals who are now employed across government – and in the wider public sector – have joined a world where a stigma still hangs around failure. Fast or otherwise.

At an event hosted this summer by government reform movement One Team Gov, a roomful of civil servants discussed the difficult relationship government has with the F word. One former GDS employee said that, when a project is faltering, rank-and-file employees often feel a pressure from above to “convince ourselves it is a success”.

This sentiment was echoed by recent comments from Meg Hillier, chair of the Public Accounts Committee. 

“The committee gives some credit to civil servants who tell us candidly about the risks in a project,” she said. “But, behind the scenes, it can be unpopular in Whitehall to come and tell it, warts and all, at committee. Too often, optimism can override common sense.”

Under the glare of a select committee is all-too-often the only place to hear any acknowledgement whatsoever of a government project going awry. Indeed, Hillier and her colleagues are currently turning up the heat on Home Office officials, as PAC investigates the difficulties endured during the rollout of the new Emergency Services Network. 

A rollout that will take years longer than originally scheduled, at an additional cost of well over £1bn.

The Science and Technology Committee, meanwhile, has just begun publishing written evidence submitted to its ongoing inquiry into digital government, and the work of the Government Digital Service since its establishment in 2011. In the Cabinet Office’s evidence submission, an accompanying letter from minister for implementation Oliver Dowden said that he “looks forward to discussing these issues further” as the investigation progresses.

A Verified success?
One issue sure to be discussed at greater length is the fate and future of the GOV.UK Verify service.

It was announced this month that responsibility for the identity-assurance platform is being handed over to the private sector, with five of its commercial partners signing 18-month support and development contracts. Once those deals conclude, Verify will receive no further government funding. 

This development was pitched by Dowden as good news.

“The approach announced today ensures that GOV.UK Verify will continue to protect public sector digital services from cyberthreats,” he said. “In addition, the contracts enable the private sector to develop affordable identity-assurance services that will meet future private- and public-sector needs.”

Time may well prove Dowden’s positive outlook to be merited. 

But, not for the first time in Verify’s troubled history, the government cannot reasonably claim that everything is going to plan.

Both the number of users and the number of services that have embraced Verify have severely lagged expectations. And this disappointing uptake came on the back of the service being launched several years later than scheduled.

Perhaps spinning the service out to the private sector is the right decision – but it is certainly not what government set out to do. 

Along the way, there have been few, if any public admissions of the scale of the difficulties and challenges encountered, and the many occasions it has failed to meet targets. 

Verify is by no means the first major government technology project where this is the case.

If the public sector could foster an environment where those incremental failures could be openly admitted – and met with pragmatic discussion, rather than censure – then government could perhaps ensure that it is the last. 

Among the civil servants gathered at the One Team Gov event, one suggestion that met with widespread approval was the ideas that what gets rebuked as ‘failure’ should perhaps be rebranded as ‘learning’. 

Or, as one delegate put it: “Most projects are set up to fail – and most do. The more we can normalise that, the better.”

Only another 9,999 failures to go…

About the author

Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology

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