Learning From Failure

"In general, it is human nature to shout about new ideas that have succeeded - while failure is discussed in hushed whispers, if at all . . . If we want to encourage criminal justice officials to test new ideas and challenge conventional wisdom, we need to create a climate where failure is openly discussed."

The Center for Court Innovation's project on failure in the criminal justice system - an edited transcript of the discussion can be found here - was recently released, and has already generated a lot of buzz in the legal blogosphere, from sites as diverse as the Legal Blog Watch, Open Eye Communications, AlertInfo and the Bureau of Justice Assistance (the event's sponsor).

It also got me thinking about the important role that failure has played in Bronx Community Solutions.

As Project Director, I've spent a lot of time touting our successes, which at this point I can rattle off without breaking a sweat: steep reductions in the use of jail for low-level offenders; more sentencing options for judges and greater utilization of community service and social service mandates; a 40 percent increase in compliance with court orders; over $1 million in community service projects for the Bronx; and literally thousands of participants who have been connected to social services like a job, drug treatment or recreational opportunities after their mandate is complete.

I'm proud of what we've accomplished in the almost three years of operations in the Bronx. But it's not really all of the story. Any experienced practitioner (or even educated citizen) is by now familiar with the de rigeour litany of project success: it seems like even the most modest policy initiatives are bristling with impressive statistics and achievements. On balance, I think that's a good thing - after all, we live in a more results oriented world.

What's lost in this relentless chatter about problems solved, milestones reached and money saved, however, is a candid discussion of the challenges and frustrations of public sector innovation. That's why it was such a relief to hear committed professionals talk about failure. It's about as close as you'll get to the experience of hearing their thoughts over a beer (without the beer, of course).

If that were the report's only achievement, it would be well worth reading. But the piece also does a nice job of capturing something about Bronx Community Solutions that I've found hard to put into words.

In private moments, I think of the accomplishments cited above as the coin we pay for being allowed to fail. What I'm proudest about Bronx Community Solutions is that we've taken an open minded, non-bureaucratic approach to addressing problems faced in a large, urban courthouse. Inevitably, that's going to lead to failure, as we try out new things and discard what isn't working.

As the transcript nicely captures, it's possible to survive failure. It doesn't have to be a career killer. In fact, failure should be built in to any successful project.

So I leave you with a question: have you failed lately? And if not, why not?