The Case for Trying (…and sometimes failing)

A wise man once said, “Do or do not. There is no try.”

With all due respect, we beg to differ.

The Martin Prosperity Institute, Rotman faculty and members of the media recently sat down with world-renowned political scientist Francis Fukuyama to talk about what a more iterative democracy – that is, one that allows for regular change in the name of improvement – might look like.

Through a day of discussion a consensus was reached: governments need to shift their focus away from results-oriented policymaking, to one that allows for prototyping, and tinkering before scaling up.

In short, we need government policymaking in which failure is not only an option: it is a necessity.

Fukuyama’s work with governments around the world, with whom he endeavors to strengthen democratic institutions and the outcomes they provide, is inspiring to us. To our minds, his experience makes him a natural choice for inclusion in our discussion, as we try to do the same with our policy proposals.

Too often, we see massive programs launched before they are ready. A prime example was the rollout of Obamacare’s online exchange in the United States. Although launched quickly, buy-in from the public was hurt when the platform’s website crashed, locking out would-be subscribers, and proved incapable of responding to demand.

A more iterative approach would take a page from the tech world, where beta versions of software are made available to the public with the express purpose of finding its flaws.

We see this sort of trial and error approach under authoritarian regimes like China, where local pilot projects are exempt from certain laws in the name of innovation, and even in our own militaries. Wisconsin’s welfare reforms became the model on which Clinton based national changes in the 90s and Obamacare was a policy borrowed from Mitt Romney in Massachusetts; two solid state-level examples.

Of course, the software world is far more nimble than government. In rethinking policymaking, the main challenge is reorienting the public perception around what it means.

This requires strong leadership, willing to stay the course, even in the face of short-term backlash. It also requires a more mature media, one that is able to see the forest through the trees. Most importantly, it requires buy-in from the public, whose opinions are the ultimate arbiters of policy.

Prototyping at the local level allows governments to work outside the probing eyes of the public. If the policy works, it can be scaled up to the national level. If it does not, the scale and scope is small enough that changes can be made, or the policy discarded altogether.
Yet, years of broken promises have left voters jaded and distrustful of government. Working outside the public eye invites accusations of secrecy and opens government up to more scrutiny in the name of accountability and rightly so. Rather than making promises no one believes they will keep, prototyping gives politicians the chance to work with their constituents to find the best policy solution. Over time, this kind of accountability on both sides – politicians no longer need to over-promise while voters are part of the decision making process – rebuilds trust.

Clearly a careful balance needs to be struck. And we’re not naive enough to believe that such sweeping changes to the way we think about policy – let alone how we create and implement it – can be made over night. But the current status quo won’t change unless we at the very least try.