What does failure mean (for public services)?

I've been working to develop services in the public sector for a while now and one thing that baffles me is the reluctance to accept or address service failure. I know that there are heaps of governance structures and models around, that help to mitigate risk, address what should happen if things fail and so on. But, I'm still not convinced there's the right attitude or culture towards speaking openly and honestly about failure in the public sector.

In my young, naive eyes (often the words used to describe me) the world is pretty black and white. For example:

If our welfare service fails, people will end up homeless.

Instead, what is often said is:

So when our welfare service fails, and people end up homeless, what will we do?

And thus another service is born.

But what if we addressed the service failure in the original service?

Granted, we don't often know the fall out or consequences of a service until we start running with it (which is why agile ways of working are great when we're implementing new services). But, if we focus on changing the service that's been implemented we can prevent those consequences.

Of course, something needs to be done for people who the system has already failed. New services need to continue to exist and need to continue to get better. But let's stop focussing on catching people and start focussing on why things aren't working in the first place.

Success vs Failure

One of the things I learnt from my time in startup land and whilst earning my brownie points practising design thinking, was to define success. You'll hear the phrase "what does success look like?" a lot. The focus is on that success and solely on that success.

Success is often measured by KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) like how many people have signed up to your website, how many active users you have on an app or purchases from a online shop.

As a result, we define failure as not being successful - not hitting those numbers. We rarely think about the unintended consequences of failure or the impact that it has on the end user. Why hasn't someone signed up to your website? Why aren't people continuing to use your app? Why aren't people buying things from your online shop?

Failure in the public sector

In reality, failure is far more nuanced that. There are levels of failure, and often we're measuring the wrong thing. You can't be seen to risk anything, try and/or fail at anything. Failure isn't just about a service not working, it's about failing people's needs, it's process failure, it's technology failures. It's everything from not being easily accessible, to system crashes, to awkward opening times or long queues.

People might still be able to reach an outcome (service success) but let's start challenging at what experience cost we expect that to happen.

Failed culture

Failure in the public sector is also rooted in a culture that means you can't fail. The result is that it's difficult to innovate. Governance structures that are supposed to safeguard users, often prevent services from testing early, failing and moving on. Too much time and money is still spent on perfecting things early, which means people are already invested in a new services' success before it's even seen by users. The culture prevents people from openly speaking about the risks they're testing against, the potential failures or a system and furthermore, exacerbates what success might look like.

When we don't accept failure as a part of the public sector, we risk failing harder and at a greater cost.

We risk people not being able to navigate the services around them and getting the help they need. So let's start being more about and honest about what failure looks like, not just success.