“How government can take better risks” panel by Jane Green.

On Friday, December 14, GGWash hosted a panel on how governments can take better risks. That might sound like a stuffy subject, but it felt more like a Sunday afternoon chat with friends than a typical moderated panel.

Here are some things I learned from the panelists and Harriet Tregoning, a resiliency and planning expert, former Director of the DC Office of Planning, and former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary at HUD, who moderated the discussion with two prominent risk takers.

Creating environments for risk-taking

Panelist George Hawkins, who is perhaps best known for leading the dramatic transformation of DC WASA from a distrusted department to a pillar of the community as DC Water, emphasized that the community's values must be reflected at the top of any organization. Hawkins is an environmentalist, attorney, former Director of the DC Department of the Environment, and former General Manager of the DC Water and Sewer Authority.

He said once the community’s values are ingrained in the organization’s mission and leadership, that creates the space for taking risks that are in the best interest of the long-term vision of the organization. When he first arrived at DC Water, the employees held the values of the community but the executive level lacked vision and mission. Hawkins pointed out that not only do you have to have a mission, you have to actually believe in it and act on it as well. “Branding only gets you so far,” he said.

For panelist Jeff Tumlin, Director of Strategy for Nelson\Nygaard who recently served as the Interim Director of Oakland’s Department of Transportation, resource constraints drove creativity and risk-taking. Being forced to work under tight budgets and limited resources meant a certain level of risk-taking was necessary to manage the newly-formed department and produce the desired values-based outcomes for the community.

Tumlin used the opportunity to advance the transportation department’s mission of creating a safer, more equitable, and more vibrant community while also shepherding major projects, including a multi-county Bus Rapid Transit effort and launching a bikeshare program.

Both panelists agreed that in order to take better risks, it's important to start with having a clear problem statement. Identifying and articulating the problem is the first step to unearthing opportunities for innovation and change. They also encouraged working across government departments—you may find friends in unlikely places.

The role of community activists

The panel was speaking to an audience primarily composed of government employees, but the speakers acknowledged the role that community groups play in creating a positive environment for risk-taking. Because government officials operate with political pressure, community groups can provide “political cover” for more progressive actions.

Jeff Tumlin acknowledged that community groups “covered his left flank” by agitating for more progressive actions, which made his decision appear more mainstream and moderate by comparison.

George Hawkins pointed out that a consistent stream of criticism from activist groups can wear on agency staffers and lead to low morale. He encouraged community groups to balance attacks with praise.

Optimizing risk-taking

Tregoning noted that neither Hawkins nor Tumlin were unbridled risk takers who were “unleashed” in their roles, but rather they took deliberate and calculated risks to move their respective organizations forward.

When pressed on how to discern a worthwhile risk, Hawkins emphasized the need to always have a plan for reaching success. If you make a “risky” decision, you need to have a roadmap that lays out the steps for success based on that decision.

“How government can take better risks” panel by Jane Green.

When weighing whether the hard road is the way to go, Hawkins' method is to ask himself these two questions: 1. Is taking this risk fundamental to my mission? and 2. Are the obstacles primarily under my influence or control?

If the answer to those questions are yes, it’s likely a risk that should be taken. If most of the anticipated challenges are out of your control or sphere of influence, the difficulty you will face will probably outweigh the benefits.

Tumlin pointed out that when a risk is too high for governments, partnering with the private sector to take on some of that risk through public-private partnerships can be a successful way to optimize risk-taking.

When taking risk, focus on the future

During the audience Q&A, I asked how governments can be forward-thinking and willing to take risks without losing their focus on public health and safety. Tumlin responded with my favorite takeaway of the session: “We should be planning for the needs of the future, not the convenience of the present.”

Governments and regulatory bodies often focus on minimizing the problems of yesteryear. We see this repeatedly in reactive regulation and guidance that comes from most federal agencies. Tumlin argues we should be regulating with a focus on creating positive future outcomes, rather than mitigating issues of the past.

The event, which was sponsored by Nelson\Nygaard, is part of the GGWash Forum Series. These events are free for members of the GGWash Neighborhood, the new membership program that support the journalism and advocacy you see on this site everyday. You can join today and get free admission to the next Forum event!

Wendi Wilkes is a native Texan living in Washington, DC with a love of Leslie Knope, chips & queso, and public transportation. She is a policy analyst for the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators and works on regulatory and legislative issues under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Wendi earned a B.A. in Geography from the University of Texas at Austin.