As Arnold Kling explains, the best way to deal with failure depends on the institution. An individual needs to fail with a fallback position, a small startup firm needs to fail quickly, and a large, established firm needs to fail gracefully. But government, says Kling, cannot do any of these things well.
Of the many things that governments do poorly, failing is probably the worst. That is why governments rarely produces significant innovations. To produce innovative ideas, products, processes, or services requires testing what works and adjusting what doesn’t until you find the right formula. In a free market, the actions of consumers provide a signal to individuals and firms that they are doing well – or that they are failing.
If a company is failing, they have an incentive to adjust — and are pressured by competitors to adjust quickly — in order to give the customer what they need. They are often faced with a brutal, binary choice: innovate or fail. Government agencies, in contrast, tend to lack such feedback mechanisms and the ability to adjust quickly precisely because they have a low fear of failure. Even if they are unable to innovate and serve the needs of their “customers” they will likely stay in business due to bureaucratic inertia.
One way to overcome this problem is through public-private partnerships, like between IKEA, the Swedish furniture company, and UNCHR, the UN refugee agency. As the company explains, IKEA has the “knowledge to make thing easy to pack, easy to move, and easy to use.” By sharing their knowledge they have helped UNCHR do a better job of serving refugees.
Prior to the IKEA collaboration, the UNCHR was only able to provide tents or converted mass-shelters for the influx of refugees into countries around the world. Now, with IKEA’s help, explains Inhabitat, these displaced citizens will not only have privacy and comfort, but the dignity of having their own place.
Unlike the standard, wood-based products you’d find in an IKEA stores, the shelters are made from lightweight, Porta-Potty-style plastic mounted on a supersteel skeleton. To make them cost-effective to build, assemble, and ship, the Refugee Housing Unit uses a new type of polymer siding called Rhulite that lets light in during the day but keeps light from casting embarrassing shadows outside during the night.
That’s the type of innovation that government agencies would find impossible to develop, much less implement on their own. But IKEA is able to do it because of the knowledge they’ve acquired doing something the government rarely does – learning from their failures.