Rebooting Britain: encourage failure (Wired)

13th December, 2009

“Dare to Fail” was a week-long course taught by a Peter Cook character, the football manager Alan Latchley – a man whose chief contribution to the beautiful game was to get his team to stand on each others’ shoulders, backs to the opposition, in an attempt to block the goalmouth.

Politics is supposed to inspire satire, not the other way round – but I think the government needs to take a leaf out of Alan Latchley’s book. Failure is inescapable in a complex world, and the more governments are in denial of that fact, the more they will cling to bad ideas.

Take a look at the private sector: most businesses fail eventually, and ten per cent of companies disappear every year. The most dynamic sectors, such as computing, see the baton handed over again and again, from Transitron to Intel, IBM to Microsoft to Google. Figuring out what consumers want, and the best way to give it to them, is a challenge that requires a great deal of trial and error. The economic growth of wealthy countries has emerged from this process of evolution, with more successful ideas growing from the ashes of disaster.

In principle, why shouldn’t ten per cent of government policies also disappear as “failures” every year, to be replaced by something better? Whether it’s a drive to reduce hospital infections or to persuade people to recycle, a new literacy scheme in the classroom or a new regime for rehabilitating offenders, most policies can be rigorously evaluated, copied if they work and culled if they don’t. If private-sector performance is anything to go by, about half of all such policies are likely to be duds. And that’s just fine – as long as the duds aren’t allowed to live forever.

The obstacle is politics: if failure is so common, no sensible politician really wants to take such pains to discover it. Alan Latchley claimed that the other side of failure was success. Quite by accident, he was right. Good policies will often be right by accident, too.

First published in Wired.

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