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Unless cities risk failure, nothing will change

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 now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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I sometimes note a level of arrogance and hubris with this official. Yes, this is an important decision. It effects the CLIMATE for growth and on the margin may nudge things in one direction or another. But her authority is limited and reflected. It is also channeling market forces rather than really fundamentally changing them. Note this from Lydia's hagiographic article on the Harriet... "n her D.C. incarnation, Tregoning is still winning over developers. On her panel at the International Council of Shopping Centers conference in National Harbor, she tells an audience full of real estate professionals that the best way to impress her office, which makes recommendations to the all-powerful Zoning Commission, is to show that they understood the pedestrian, bicycle, and transit flow around them—even if retailers want bigger spaces and more parking for cars." Who carries the whip?

by Tom M on Feb 6, 2013 2:34 pm • linkreport

Harriet is a breath of fresh air in government. Most planning directors are so risk adverse that their communities continue to approve the same unsustainable transportation and land use concepts that were being approved in the 1970's. Okay, so they discuss "TODs" or "mixed use development" but the same zoning and subdivision rules usually apply and they still substitute "traffic studies" for "transportation analyses" as they continue to assume that "automobility" is and will be the primary form of travel in their communities 25 years from now. No wonder their children are opting to live in locations that are completely different than the places where the planning directors are employed. Keep it up Harriet - You are helping to change the transportation and land use paradigm in more areas than DC and we in the plannng field applaud you for your courage and perseverance to achieve needed change.

by David W on Feb 6, 2013 3:50 pm • linkreport

I love when a public official so cavalierly says things like "Innovation is about failing. You have to fail sometimes",
when they're taxing us and failing with our hard earned money.

by Jack J on Feb 6, 2013 3:54 pm • linkreport

Innovation is about failing. You have to fail sometimes",

Raised my brow as well. While I get her point, I don't think you will find a public willing to allow it's officials to go through several failed variations of an idea and not want to kick them out of office.

Maybe it's easier for her to say such while perched from such a comfortable position here in DC?

by HogWash on Feb 6, 2013 3:58 pm • linkreport

A decade ago Harriet Tregoning espoused very much the same concepts while employed as Secretary for Planning & Smart Growth in Maryland. It is important to keep in mind how much it costs taxpayers when planners continue to promote outdated sprawl-oriented development concepts.

She is absolutely correct: "Planning directors, if they don't push to change anything, they might have job security, but literally nothing changes in their city."

How can we afford that?

by David W on Feb 6, 2013 4:22 pm • linkreport

I miss Gabe.

by recyclist on Feb 6, 2013 4:32 pm • linkreport

I"t is important to keep in mind how much it costs taxpayers when planners continue to promote outdated sprawl-oriented development concepts."

I don't like sprawl either, but the cost of rent and properties along Metro corridors in this region are astronomical, and with Metro service not only increasingly unreliable but also more expensive, driving is again the more economic and time efficient option for many of us in this region. What benefit is there anymore to buy/rent in more dense TOD communities?

by Jack J on Feb 6, 2013 4:36 pm • linkreport

Shorter Jack J: "Nobody lives there anymore. It's too crowded."

by Matt C on Feb 6, 2013 4:45 pm • linkreport

@Jack J

From a personal perspective... Your time? Extra time means being able to cook dinner, take your dog for a walk, or make it home in time to see your kids baseball game.

From the cities perspective, sprawl is incredibly expensive and inefficient.

by Kyle-W on Feb 6, 2013 4:58 pm • linkreport

when they're taxing us and failing with our hard earned money.

If we're talking about ONE MASSIVE project, you're probably right. But there's nothing wrong with failure if we're talking about a bunch of smaller projects. Some failure might be good. It can let us know, w/o breaking the bank, how to improve, what to concentrate our resources on, etc. It's the "lighter, faster, cheaper" approach in the public sector.

The idea that gov't or business will get everything right 100% of the time isn't realistic. Solyndra comes to mind. It was, relatively speaking (500M of a 80B "green" stimulus) cheap, and although that small portion didn't provide a ROI, many of the other loans did. In this case, Chu took a risk and it didn't work out, BUT that doesn't invalidate the success of other loans or mean he shouldn't have tried to begin with.

by thump on Feb 6, 2013 5:07 pm • linkreport

"The idea that gov't or business will get everything right 100% of the time isn't realistic. "

Business can use their own capital to try and fail. I have the choice to invest in or consume their products or not.

Government does not give me such options.

Yes, what's $500m blown on Solyndra when its our $500m?

by Jack J on Feb 6, 2013 5:22 pm • linkreport

Legalizing a few accessory dwelling units and codifying lower parking requirements is such risk taking?

by Tom Coumaris on Feb 6, 2013 5:24 pm • linkreport


Fail small.

The problem is that doing shitty, destructive development is a solved problem. We can often execute solved problems without failure. But that doesn't help if the result is one big meta-fail.

Getting away from that self-destructive way of doing things is not a solved problem. So there are going be failures. The "it's my TAXPAYER MOENY!" thing is just a red herring. It presupposes that there is someone out there who can execute this stuff perfectly. There ain't.

by oboe on Feb 6, 2013 5:26 pm • linkreport

"The "it's my TAXPAYER MOENY!" thing is just a red herring"

How is that a red herring?! Government takes my money - money I'm unable to spend elsewhere - and spends it on projects that fail. Either way, I'm left with less than where I began

by Jack J on Feb 6, 2013 5:31 pm • linkreport

Also the DOE loans were insured so that money wasn't really lost.

And it's one thing to complain that living close to the metro but its another to say the government is overstepping its bounds by wanting to build more metro and allow more metro accessible housing.

Besides talking about a new metro line isn't risky! We know that the metro is successful and we know the reasons why.

by Drumz on Feb 6, 2013 5:59 pm • linkreport

How is that a red herring?! Government takes my money - money I'm unable to spend elsewhere - and spends it on projects that fail. Either way, I'm left with less than where I began

It's a red herring because it doesn't contribute to the conversation. If you're saying, "I want my government to do whatever it does with a 100% success rate" then welcome to reality. Space shuttles blow up. Bridges fail. Sometimes streetcar barns have to be moved.

Not sure if you work in private industry, but if not, I can tell you every project everywhere has its small failures. It's part of the process.

by oboe on Feb 6, 2013 6:34 pm • linkreport

If you're saying, "I want my government to do whatever it does with a 100% success rate" then welcome to reality.

What's worse is that this mentality feeds into Govt risk aversion; That risk aversion is somewhat perversely paired with demands that government do stuff; fear of failure leads to overly protective projects; This is the kind of stuff that leads to scope creep and elephantine projects.

That risk aversion can also feed into constrictive rules on contracting and the like; those rules have unintended consequences where the lowest bidder doesn't always offer the best value.

The irony of it all is that the core risk aversion can actually increase the risk - by adding cost or by adding unneeded scope.

by Alex B. on Feb 6, 2013 6:41 pm • linkreport

"I sometimes note a level of arrogance and hubris with this official." While I support Ms. Tregoning 100%, I think there's some truth to this. A little in to the video, she says if (she) planning directors don't push "literally nothing changes in their city."

I love that she tries and is willing to fail, but I think it would help her if she empnasized that change isn't just dependant on her.

by Thayer-D on Feb 6, 2013 8:06 pm • linkreport

The ICC was a long, slow fail. Expensive too.

by Greenbelt on Feb 6, 2013 8:23 pm • linkreport

Hear, hear for the overall thrust of this blog post.

I will say that sometimes political appointees are not that good. In that case, pray that the inertia of a competent organization will carry it through the hopefully brief periods of poor leadership. And if the organization is not competent, or unwilling to stand up to political whims, then there is trouble ahead Many times, appointees are in the position to take credit as something comes to fruition that was due more to initiative on the part of a predecessor or staff. And handing off this credit is part of public service.

Please don't construe this post as being critical of Tregoning, who has impressed. In fact, my first-hand experience with political leadership has been very favorable, and I have been lucky to work in highly functional organizations. A few failing or corrupt agencies sure can ruin it for the rest though! This is more a meditation on leadership and followership.

by Monkeydaddy on Feb 6, 2013 8:29 pm • linkreport

Was this a clip of Harriet Tregoning or Michelle Rhee? She sounded like she espouses a similar philosophy of bold, experimental policymaking, albeit without giving developers (/education for-profits) as much of a free-rein. Still I have to agree with Tom, she could take a few more risks than she has.

by DCster on Feb 6, 2013 8:35 pm • linkreport

It absolutely contributes to the conversation! I expect government to be as risk averse as possible. It's not their money they are playing with.

I expect delivery of core services, and I pay the tax rates according to this expectation.

If the risk translates into cost savings, great - send that money back to me. If it's a loss, that is unacceptable

by Jack J on Feb 6, 2013 9:20 pm • linkreport

But it's not a risk if its guaranteed to work. (For a given definition of "work")

by Drumz on Feb 6, 2013 10:20 pm • linkreport

The risk I'd love to hear more about is streetcars. Just today the Washington Post had an article stating that with over a thousand new residents moving in every month, the amount of parking was remaining relativly stagnant. They even quoted Ms. Tregoning trumpeting all the inovative ways they've promoted alternate transit. While I laud all her efforts there, I wish she'd be more vocal about moving the streetcar network. Building the network will revolutionize how people will live in DC to say nothing about the development community. It will address the perenial issue of housing prices by opening up much more realsetate to the kind of transit friendly, ammenity rich development that's in such demand. If she'd walk that plank, they could name a park after her, and rightfully so.

by Thayer-D on Feb 7, 2013 8:26 am • linkreport

No, of course we can't expect her to be 100 percent corret. But it gets tireome when all her proposals are one-sided, I.e. Anti-car. Bikes ,streetcars, pedestrians, maximum parking , limited parking , abolition of minimum parking. This is an automobile society and she can't "plan her way around it. I'm 87and I remember the streetcar days of O. Roy Chalk. It was a disaster. They took over halfcthe street and created gigantic messes, not mention accidents from carscskidding onvtheirslippery wet rails in the rain. We don't need her help.

by Bunky on Feb 7, 2013 11:33 am • linkreport

Space shuttles blow up, bridges fail is exactly why this line of thought totally pisses me off (generally).

Yes, people shouldn't be penalized for failing when they take risks, provided they weren't being half-a**ed. The space shuttle failed because of very basic failures within systems and within operations. The same with the bridge in Minnesota. AND THE SAME WITH THE METRO CRASH. In few of the cases were people fired.

I get p.o'ed because so many of the programs are set up in half-a**ed ways, that figuring out the errors and likely problems beforehand is really easy. At least it is for me.

So for those kinds of things, I don't think that "failure should be celebrated." The same goes for so many of the various social programs in the city, and just about everything that DCPS is doing as "reform" yet these people are getting paid tons of money for failure. (E.g., why should Kaya Henderson get paid almost $300K for managing not only a shrinking school district but a really really really small one--she gets paid more than the superintendents in Fairfax, MoCo and PG and all of those districts are about 3x bigger in terms of enrollments.)

Do we really need to spend $600K to "test" composting? Or repeat the same mistakes with "performance parking" in dozens of more places in the city--as long as a resident permit is valued at about zero dollars and car owner parking is privileged, and people get free visitor parking permits, whatever you do is going to be flawed. Etc.


P.S. one of the biggest lessons of "SmartBike" was really, and I doubt that it was learned, to not agree to such crappy 20+ year contracts for bus shelters, that probably was too broad in terms of how it covered street furniture and future changes as technology changed. Instead, it's kinda locked in at 2005 technologies.

by Richard Layman on Feb 7, 2013 6:31 pm • linkreport


While these links about computing-related risks, the general points about system failures pertain to all sorts of systems, especially those in government.

by Richard Layman on Feb 7, 2013 6:33 pm • linkreport

and the real failure is twofold, (1) with elected officials mostly, because ultimately they are in charge, they set the vision and (2) ultimately when you work in the exec. branch you work for the executive, who sets policy, and this includes the agency directors who at the end of the day have to toe the line.

a) except that in some governments the long time staff are really in charge, especially if they run the budget process

b) and if you have some staff with guts they will at least point out alternatives, and try to push better direction.

My Baltimore County experience is a weird version of this. My boss would have never written the kind of radical recommendations I made in the plan, recommendations that were ultimately passed in separately legislation and also approved with the plan.

BUT, she helped tweak the recommendations to make them better, helped me figure out the problems by answering my questions with her deep knowledge about some of the processes (like capital budgeting) and now that the ordinance was passed she's helping to move the process of implementation and system change along.

Now that it's "the law" and "the policy" she's pushing it forward, but she would have never "stepped out" and laid out that course of action.

by Richard Layman on Feb 7, 2013 6:39 pm • linkreport

@Richard Layman,

Can't say I disagree with the general tenor of your comments. We shouldn't excuse gross incompetence. But newly implemented complex systems are going to fail. The only way to not fail is to not do anything. The idea (proposed above) that government should ignore any initiative that's not guaranteed a 100% success rate is just a recipe for larger failure.

(Software's a good example, where more than a half century in, failure is still the default mode of software development. Is that because all software developers are incompetent or corrupt? No, it's because there's no alternative.)

by oboe on Feb 7, 2013 6:57 pm • linkreport

The space shuttle failed because of very basic failures within systems and within operations.

I just want to point out that there is failure and then there is failure. Failure to safely operate a system is indeed unacceptable.

That's not what we're talking about here, however - we're talking about risk aversion to minor policy changes. The decision to a) try SmartBike and b) pull the plug on it are completely different kinds of risks than the risks that Metro was taking prior to the Red Line crash, or from the systemic failures evident in the Space Shuttle crash - already a much riskier business.

Instead, we're talking about risk in the investment sense. And nobody is celebrating failure here - that's not what is meant when arguing we should take more risks.

by Alex B. on Feb 7, 2013 8:35 pm • linkreport

"Try again, fail again. Fail better." Yes, sloppy work is not to be forgiven, but, often, when it comes to that, it's a result of constraints. Budget constraints, time constraints, vision contraints. I spent many years as a government employee, and the prohibition against failing was one of my biggest frustrations. Sometimes, if you need me to do something new and innovative, there are going to be failures. It's not that I was being sloppy, just that new procedures, calculations, processes, etc. don't always work out as planned. Never in my life has the old joke "you can have something done fast, cheap, or well...pick two" rang so true (yet I caught hell when it wasn't all three). I'm willing to settle for any two of those, AS A TAXPAYER, so long as learning happens and better results follow. So far, I'm pleased with DC's leaders in this regard.

by Ms. D on Feb 7, 2013 11:34 pm • linkreport

Ms. D -- so much in the way of failure in government activity is predictable. It's why I get so worked up about it. There is a difference between being risk averse and yes, I joke that all elected officials make judgements based on whether or not what they do will end up in the front section or Metro section of the local paper, and therefore they act accordingly, and just doing crappy work.

Another of my jokes is that because DC is the national capital, it defines prima facie, whatever it does as "world class". Too frequently it is far from it. I have higher standards and expectations.

And people who point to the failure as a price of innovation people are right, but too often it's used to glaze over and direct attention away from everyday failure because the processes are underdeveloped and/or flawed, and the agencies haven't stepped up to try to change this. (Land use planning, zoning, transportation planning, transit planning, parks planning, schools planning, are all areas where this is a particular problem.)

by Richard Layman on Feb 8, 2013 6:08 am • linkreport

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