Policymaking for small failures

This one has been in my draft folder for awhile, while I spent the first part of the summer teaching and consulting and the month of July mostly playing.

One of my favorite bloggers anywhere, Beth Kanter, had a post on one of my favorite topics:


Specifically, how nonprofits can and should plan for ‘affordable losses or little bets to improve impact’.

Like everything she writes, it’s well worth reading.

But I am thinking about these small failures not in the nonprofit organizational context, as Beth so ably covers, but in terms of policymaking.

Because there’s a lot that we need to learn in that arena, too, and, so, a lot on which we need to fail.

Our hesitancy to risk policy innovations stems, I think, in large part from fear of failure, when such failures may be exactly what we need, as long as they are small enough and contained enough not to become disasters.

We don’t know, for example, all that much about what it’s going to take to stem the rise in obesity rates, but we have some ideas of things to try. The same thing is certainly true in addressing educational disparities, or combating addiction, or other vexing problems where we have many more questions than answers.

We need more research, yes, and analysis, but we also need to take some chances, with the understanding that we will scale those approaches that don’t fail and quickly abandon those that do.

Such deliberate failures require nimble structures, though, and courageous leaders.

And we don’t necessarily have those in abundance in our policymaking systems. I recognize that.

But I think it’s worth putting it out there as a valid aim, this goal of small failures and the context that would support them.

The pressing nature of our greatest social problems demands that we accept neither reiterations of the same policies that aren’t bringing the impact we need, or wholesale rejection of those approaches in favor of the next shiny thing that may or may not work any better.

Instead, we need to move boldly but modestly, testing and evaluating and adjusting and adopting or abandoning.

Small failures, in pursuit of big change.

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