Melanie Verwoerd

Why our government should admit to its failures

2016-06-01 07:36

Melanie Verwoerd

There is a saying in Silicon Valley: “Fail fast, fail often, fail forward”. I believe our government should learn from this. Okay, perhaps not so much the “fail often” bit, I think they have that one pretty well covered, but failing fast and failing forward, might need some work. 

A few years ago the Canadian based Engineers Without Borders did something which shook many in the NGO world. They published a "Failure Report". Frustrated by many missed learning opportunities because of the silence and “spinning” due to fear that funders might withdraw support, they collected all their failures and published a glossy report alongside their annual report.

They emphasised that it was not an attempt to glamourise failure, but an honest effort to learn from their mistakes so as not repeating them. By making it public they wanted the knowledge to be available for other NGOs to learn from. 

Not only did funders not withdraw their support, but the “failure work” of EWB Canada spread into other NGOs. Organisations such as “Fail Forward” and “Admitting Failure” were set up, and global Failure Conferences in places like Oslo and Brussels became annual events.

Failure reports are done regularly in business, although they usually remain confidential, for in-house use only. But I have not been able to find any examples of it in politics or governments. There are endless expensive evaluations by consultants, but they are rarely made public. 

Which set me thinking: Imagine if every government department and ministry, even the presidency, were to bring out a failure report every year in which they honestly grappled with matters that were not successful, or had not succeeded as well as they could have. And in addition to admitting the failure, they also gave the reasons for the failure, and the steps that would be taken to prevent it in the future. 

How different our political world have been if, for example, the arms deal had featured in a “failure report” in its first year,  “Nkandla” 10 years ago, or the “fisheries quotas” before the opposition or media exposed those failures. Not only would we have saved millions of rands in commissions of inquiry and legal fees, but in many instances matters could have been corrected speedily and not smouldered on for years. The lost opportunities’ costs would have been far less.

Most importantly, such failure reports would (as the NGOs discovered) significantly increase transparency and the trust of voters. One of the problems with politics is that it so easily becomes personality/ego driven rather than outcomes based. Which also means that the individual politicians are attacked rather than attention being focused on the failure itself and what caused it.

As it is, what happens is that politicians defend their egos at all costs with endless denials and obscuring of facts, or just plain lies conjured up by spin doctors.  As the formidable former editor of the Washington Post, Benjamin Bradlee, put it: “Spin gets in the way of the truth." 

If we want more truthfulness, as well as smarter policies and implementation based on experiential learning, the public, the media and opposition parties, must become more accepting of the fact that government officials and politicians may make mistakes in the quest to learn and adapt – assuming, of course, that this is how they “use” their failures. 

Archbishop Desmond Tutu once told me how, during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, he got a call from one of Nelson Mandela’s assistants who wanted to get the number of Dumisa Ntsebeza (given his role in the TRC). Madiba wanted to put Dumisa’s mind at ease about a report from Judge Richard Goldstone that affected him. But Tutu felt strongly that as chairman of the TRC he should see the report first and then be the one to speak to Ntsebeza. He told the assistant to convey that message to the President.

“Barely had I put the phone down when it rang again” said the Arch.  “This time it was Madiba himself on the other side. ‘Mpilo’, he said. ‘I wanted to say you are right and I am sorry. I apologise for not speaking to you first’. How extraordinary was that?” remarked the Arch. 

I realise this was a personal conversation between two exceptional individuals and very different from a public report and political parties, but I think the same principle would apply. It is nigh impossible to be angry with someone when an honest admission of failure is made and corrective steps are taken.

If, for example, immediately after the first media reports on Nkandla appeared, President Zuma had brought out a failure report in which he stated that mistakes had been made, gave reasons for those mistakes, together with an assurance that an immediate stop would be put to all the unauthorised upgrades, and that processes would be put into place to prevent this from happening again. Would it have been such a big deal? I doubt it. As PR people say, it would have been a one-day story.  Accountability always trumps messaging.

It is clear that such an approach would change our whole political environment.  The Economic Freedom Fighters and other opposition parties would have less to shout about, but is that really such a bad thing? Entertainment value aside, I (and I assume most people) really want parliament and government to focus on service delivery and running the country and to spend less time spinning media and opposition criticism. Of course, the opposition and media could still expose those failures that were not disclosed, as well as monitor repeated failures or lack of remedial actions. But ultimately it would be a far cry from what we have now. 

I realise such a different approach to failure is unlikely to materialise, given the size of egos on all sides of the floor. But the fact is, as Ben Bradlee also said, recalling his newspaper’s role in the Watergate scandal: “Truth is the best remedy for any failure, and the whole truth is the very best remedy.”

*Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland.  

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