Government officials need to be willing to take risks to bring change to their cities. And residents need to support them when they do. Jarrett Walker called attention to video of DC planning director Harriet Tregoning addressing an Urban Land Institute event in October:



She says:

Planning directors, if they don’t push to change anything, they might have job security, but literally nothing changes in their city. They look behind them and there’s nobody behind them. In the job you’re constantly out there pushing, but not so hard that no one is willing to support what you’re trying to do.

Government is risk averse, right? I mean, really risk averse, and fearful of failure, because you might end up on the front page of the Washington Post.

But I think more and more cities are coming to recognize that not only is it important that they have innovators in their cities but that they be innovators, and be willing to try new things. And if they fail, fail fast.


She then talks about how Capital Bikeshare is actually DC’s second bike sharing system, which we put in after the first, SmartBike, wasn’t a success. She concludes, “Innovation is about failing. You have to fail sometimes, otherwise you’re not trying hard enough to do something interesting, and there has to be some tolerance for it.”

One clear prerequisite for a government official to be pushing for change is having a boss who understands this. An official is going to take action and some people will be upset. Does the boss (whether a mid-level manager, agency director, or mayor) just rebuke the employee simply because his or her actions generated angry emails? Or does he or she look more deeply at the issue to determine whether the employee is actually doing something good?

This tolerance also has to apply to the public. When we look at a project like a new bike lane, very soon after it opens you see blog comments and press articles about whether it’s a success or failure. But the 15th Street bike lane started out as one-way, and DDOT then switched it to 2-way. Pennsylvania Avenue still needs fixes to stop U-turns.

Certainly, at some point we do have to look back at programs and decide if they worked or not. There has to be a point where we judge a pilot program, or else we can’t learn from the experience. But, as Tregoning is saying, if some of the programs are failures, that’s not a sign of mismanagement or waste. We can’t respond to everything not being perfect by calling for “heads to roll” or something of that nature.

"Fail fast” is a hot concept in technology startups. The idea is to try a lot of things, but quickly decide whether they are working or not. Many startups have gone through 2, 3, 5, or 10 different products before they hit on a good one. Twitter arose when its founders were building a podcasting service.

A startup is not the same as the government, though. The startup can squander investors’ money and it’s only the investors who lose out. A government program uses taxpayer money, and people hold that to a higher standard.

The problem is that it doesn’t actually save money to do everything extremely slowly. Take procurement, which Mayor Gray promised to fix in last night’s State of the District address. We have enormous layers upon layers of controls and approvals to make sure that government contracts aren’t being given out based on bribes, or frivolously, or at unreasonably high rates.

We do need to guard against this, but the effect is a system so ponderous that important initiatives can sit around for a year just waiting to go ahead. A simple study of the H and I Street bus lanes took about 9 months to go through procurement at WMATA. I was hearing about moveDC for a long, long time before it happened, because of procurement delays. There are some exciting things folks in DDOT have told me about that I’d love to see move ahead yesterday, except they have to sit around for an indeterminate length of time.

Some things you can’t easily redo if you do them wrong. Design a building with poor architecture and you’re stuck with its flaws for a long, long time. What governments need to get better about doing is distinguishing those projects where you have to get everything right the first time, like building a bridge, from the ones you can scrap or modify much more easily, like a bike lane or CaBi, or an education initiative, or even a lot of zoning changes.

Meanwhile, we’re fortunate to have a planning director who would say this. A lot of great officials have nonetheless decided to prioritize job security over boldness, maybe with good reason. We need to particularly value the ones who still want so badly to make the city better that they are willing to take risks.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle.