The Problem with Pilot Programs

Pilot programs are a way to test out a policy or program to ensure it is the right solution before investing significant amounts of money. But they also pose a variety of challenges.

1 minute read

September 1, 2019, 1:00 PM PDT

By Camille Fink

Tree Grate

Pam Broviak / Flickr

"Pilots—for programs ranging from a new model of fire engine to teen pregnancy prevention efforts—are an accepted management technique almost everywhere. Unfortunately, there are lots of ways to get tripped up by them," write Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene.

One issue is that residents may not realize that the infrastructure or service is part of a pilot program that could eventually go away, they note. "So, if the ultimate decision is made that permanently implementing the pilot program would be too expensive, those who’ve enjoyed the benefits of the new service will lose it."

Pilot programs can also be costly and difficult to evaluate, making them a less effective policy and planning tool. In addition, the post-pilot next steps are not always clear, say Barrett and Greene. "Many observers are particularly concerned that a pilot program that is very successful for a portion of the city, county or state—geographically or demographically—may not be scalable to the entire entity, especially if the pilot program isn’t truly representative."

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