Pilot Programs


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  • Mitchell Weiss
    September 2, 2021

    "Pilot programs" are one of the biggest illusions in government. The label suggests experimentation, but when the announcements are over, often that's not what happens.


    Frequently a mayor, governor, school superintendent, etc. will announce a new "pilot program" to much fanfare. Maybe it will support nutrition or launch a new mode of transit or reduce school absenteeism. Post-launch though, the pilot isn't attended to. Successful efforts aren't scaled to make a meaningful difference. And unsuccessful efforts aren't either revised in various ways to try to make them work or shut down entirely so resources can be focused elsewhere.


    Thousands of "pilots" are on the horizon now as localities spend their American Rescue Plan funds to address problems related to the health and economic crises. As well, whatever infrastructure bill passes will fund "pilots" for everything from vehicle per-mile user fees to wastewater efficiency to wildlife crossings.


    Now is the moment to make sure your "pilots" are really well and responsibly run experiments.


    🚨 Often are full program/complete service (even if subscale)
    🚨 Are expected to succeed
    🚨 Often remain sub-scale, getting neither the backing to grow nor the discipline to end


    ✅ Often feature vastly limited feature sets
    ✅ Are expected to generate learning
    ✅ Are frequently pivoted from or shut down entirely when not working. Expanded to population scale when they are


    1. Design pilots to help resolve key uncertainties about new programs. Don't design them to deliver the entire program.
    2. Set expectations correctly. Don't promise success to the press or the public. Promise learning.
    3. Make pilots part of a portfolio of experiments. Don't rely on just one.
    4. Pre-identify and even secure budget resources for scaling successful experiments.
    5. Re-visit "pilot programs" at frequent milestones. Shut down pilots that aren't achieving their mission after reasonable efforts.
    6. Periodically, do a "pilot audit" to find stranded pilots that are draining organizational resources and morale.





    Artwork and animation by Emma Tavolieri @theartofemma.