Government must learn to fail better, says institute

26 Jul 16

The government must stop reaching for superficial solutions when explaining the failure of public services, according to an Institute for Government report released today.

In Failing Well, the Institute of Government analyses why organisations fail and makes recommendations on how to minimise the impact if and when things go wrong.

The report points to a raft of high-profile public service failures, such as Rotherham child services and Mid-Staffordshire Foundation Trust.

Within these and other examples, the institute found that cultures of denial, weak accountability and dysfunctional mechanisms for identifying failure “inhibited an effective response”.

It concluded that warning signs are often missed and that politicians routinely use “stock responses” to explain failures instead of seeking the root cause of the problem.

The institute warned that in the future failure in public service delivery was likely to continue, thanks to the budgetary cuts and increasing demand for services. Given this, failure must be embraced and learned from instead of being explained away.

The report stresses that failure can be avoided far more readily if government makes better use of the variety of case studies at its disposal that demonstrated where failure had been avoided, mitigated, or successfully reversed.

Researchers examined looked at four organisations that experienced significant failure but managed to recover: Eltham Foundation School (now Harris Academy Greenwich); Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council; Basildon and Thurrock NHS Foundation Trust; and West Sussex Children’s Services. 

In these four examples it was shown that the turnaround in performance was thanks to more honest reporting cultures, strong peer involvement, reinvigorated leadership and a shared ownership of failure. The tendency to restructure or lay blame, which is a standard organisational response to failure, was avoided.

Eltham Foundation School, for example, did not see a dramatic improvement in standards when it converted to an academy. What made the difference was improving its connections to high-performing schools, stronger leadership and better resources.

In Basildon, the hospital addressed a high mortality rate through the instigation of an open reporting culture within which all staff were encouraged to report incidents.

The institute stressed that honest reporting was essential, even if this meant that standards dropped “on paper”. 

Emma Norris, programme director, said: “Failure is an ever-present threat in our public services – and the risks are increasing. Yet there are good and bad ways of responding to failure. Politicians too often use a superficial set of tools – restructuring a service or parceling out blame.

“But this won’t solve the problem: leadership, collaboration and transparency will,” she added. “Those overseeing turnarounds also need to hold their nerve and accept that performance can dip further as recovery begins.”

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