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When is failure an option?

The tagline for the recent BmoreFail event in Baltimore succinctly captures the new way of thinking about failure as a tool for innovation:

“Failure is not an option. It’s a requirement.”

It is becoming a widely held belief that failure is a necessary component to serious innovation. Startup veterans counsel newcomers to “fail fast.” Inventors, like Sir James Dyson, have become the new champions of failure as a way to foster breakthroughs.

But governments have a very different view of failure. When it comes to buying big ticket items – like technology systems or solutions – governments are, understandably, risk averse.

Though often viewed as unwieldy and complex, government procurement rules exist for a reason. They are meant to help mitigate the risk that governments assume when they enter into a contract with a company for a good or service. Governments have an interest in ensuring that such companies will be able to provide the good or service at quality, and that such firms will remain viable through the life of the contract.

But there are those that argue that this often cumbersome process is a contributing factor to the public sector’s lagging use of new technologies that could drive down costs and improve efficiencies.

A prime example of this tension can be seen in a recent NY Times article discussing the development of an application to track incidents in San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation System. The application – called SMART Muni – developed at a highly publicized hacking event last year remains largely unused by Muni officials.

Outside developers and casual observers wonder aloud why it is often so difficult for governments to leverage smart, innovative solutions built by outside developers.

Public sector officials contend that doing so might present an inordinate amount of risk for governments – and by extension, taxpayers.

In many ways, the nature of risk in public sector technology use is different than that of the priviate sector. Managing a commuter transportation system can be complex and dangerous, and mistakes can cost lives as well as dollars.

How then do we balance the tension between the risk that is often inherent in innovation with government’s legitimate need to minimize risk in how it procures technology solutions?

We see three necessary components to changing how governments harness innovation.

First, governments need new ideas and an enhanced awareness of how technology advancements can be brought to bear on the challenges facing the public sector.

Second, a system for building, coordinating and connecting a network of outside developers that will create the next SMART Muni apps is needed. Collectives of civic hackers and activists exist in many cities across the country, but they are often narrowly focused and disconnected from each other.

Third, a system that supports the development of viable commercial entities around innovative civic apps is needed. This will allow these smart civic apps to be nurtured into entities that can engage with governments through the standard procurement process.

Through our various program offerings, Code for America is working to address each of these needs.

Our Fellowship program brings talented technologists into city halls across the country to work with public sector officials on strategies for harnessing the latest technology innovations for civic benefit.

Through our new Brigade program, we are building a nationwide network of hackers and activists that will be able to share ideas and solutions, and build on the work of each other to benefit their communities.

Our new Accelerator program, which is now accepting applications, is meant to nurture the development of new companies around civicly-focused apps and services. Governments need commercially viable products and services to fulfill the requirements of the procurement process, and through this program we seek to develop them.

Finally, through the Civic Commons, we seek to identify solutions and strategies used by one government that can be leveraged by others. This marketplace of ideas and apps is a valuable directory of information that can be used to glean innovation from the experience of others while minimizing risk and speeding adoption of new ideas.

Accepting failure as a necessary component for innovation can be a tricky proposition for governments.

When is failure an option?

At Code for America we’re working to strike a balance between the risk of failure and the reward of innovation.