Francis Maude tells civil servants: try new things and learn from failure

By Tony Collins

Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister who’s in charge of reforming central government, has told MPs that “good organisations learn as much from the things that are tried and do not work as from the things that are tried and do work”.

His comments will give top-level support to those in the public sector who are seeking small budgets to experiment with, say, agile approaches to software development.  The agile principle of failing cheaply and quickly and learning the lessons is unconventional in the public sector.

Appearing before the Public Administration Committee, in its hearing on Good Governance and Civil Service Reform, Maude said:

“You need to have a culture-we do not have this yet-where people are encouraged to try new things in a sensible, controlled way; front up if they have not worked – not have a culture that assumes every failure is culpable, and for every failure there has to be a scapegoat – but actually make sure that if something is tried and does not work: 1) you stop doing it; and 2) you learn from the things that have been tried and what the lessons are.

“I do not think we are good at that … part of the reason for that is the sort of audit culture, where everything has to be accounted for to the nth degree.

“I think we waste a huge amount of time and effort in stopping bad things happening and the result is we stop huge amounts of potentially good things happening as well.”

Maude was critical of the way government takes huge risks on big projects but is hostile to innovation at the micro level. He said: 

“Government tends to be quite prone to take huge macro risks, but then at working level, at micro level, to be very risk averse and hostile to innovation.

“You do not often hear of someone’s career suffering because they preside over an inefficient status quo, but try something new that does not work and that can blot your copybook big time.”

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