The Risky Business of Government Risk-Taking

Risk-taking in government can be risky, as the authors of the Cover Oregon fiasco discovered.

Risk-taking in government can be risky, as the authors of the Cover Oregon fiasco discovered.

Government risk-taking is risky business. If government officials take a policy or program risk and it flops, they are criticized for wasting taxpayer money. If officials avoid taking a risk and a problem festers, they also get criticized for wasting taxpayer money.

Dick Hughes, editorial page editor for the Statesman Journal, says risk-taking is a good idea for government. "If we want government to succeed at a higher level, we must be willing to tolerate failures," Hughes said. "That sounds counter-intuitive, but most great leaders also have a string of failures – ones from which they learned.” 

That sounds good in theory, but maybe less so in practice. In many ways, the deck is stacked against government risk-taking. My 15 years in government service says no risk-taking, however successful, goes unpunished.

It is hard to quarrel with brickbats aimed at foolish risk-taking such as Cover Oregon's over-reaching attempt to build a health insurance exchange website. Other risk-taking, especially the kind that might take a while to prove out, still earns "gotcha" reporting in the media. Many public managers, who are no fools, quickly grasp the odds are low for risk-taking in government that earns kudos.

There is room for reasonable risk-taking in government, but it requires planning, strategy and discipline, not taking a spin on a roulette wheel. Here are some suggestions based on my experience:

•  The risk should result from a consensus. Even good ideas get better when a diverse team vets them and frontline people have a chance to suggest them. When I worked as part of the Executive Department's management team under Fred Miller, we launched the "Good Ideas Program" (we couldn't think of a better name), which encouraged fresh thinking and responsible risk-taking. None of the ideas were revolutionary, but many were very good and made a noticeable difference in program efficiency and effectiveness.

•  Risk-taking must be able to pass what I call the "front-page test." You should be able to make a cogent defense of the risk that would stand up in the light of front-page exposure. If an idea couldn't withstand that kind of public scrutiny, it probably isn't worth trying.

•  Reduce a bright idea to writing. The idea may sound good until you start laying it out on paper. When you write about an idea, you will think it through more clearly –  the rationale, the methods, the answers to tough questions and the results you can realistically achieve. If you can fill in those blanks, you probably have an idea worth considering and implementing.

•  Make sure someone is accountable for the good or bad. There will be plenty of people eager to crowd into the picture of a ribbon-cutting, but few willing to be seen on the podium explaining a failure. Make sure the risk has a clear chief risk-taker. Also make sure he or she won't be tossed to the wolves if there is a failure.

If lawmakers want public managers to take reasonable risks, they need to give them the elbow room to succeed or fail and not pounce on them if they fail. They need to accept some of Dick Hughes' advice and regard failure as a step toward ultimate success.

That may be harder to do for the news media, but at least reporters and editors can provide a context for risk-taking and explore lessons learned, not just scapegoats to blame.

Risk-taking will always be risky. That's why you need to do everything possible to make sure the benefits outweigh the risk and responsible risk-takers aren't skewered for taking risks.

[This blog was based on a post written by CFM Senior Partner Dave Fiskum for his personal blog, Perspective from the 19th Hole, and it draws on his extensive experience working for state government and as an Oregon lobbyist.]