Worse than failure
3 June 2021 at 8:42 am
When we reflect on what government failures around COVID-19 quarantine and the vaccination roll out mean for the charities sector, the question of how charities deal with responsibilities, targets and performance measures emerges as a fundamental issue, writes David Crosbie.
What went wrong is in many ways a simple question. It is also an opportunity.
The ongoing failures of COVID-19 quarantine and the vaccination roll out in Australia have seen numerous government ministers, including our prime minister, seeking to deflect and avoid responsibility for any mistakes. It now appears the accepted political wisdom is that a government or a minister admitting they got some things wrong is not permissible. I guess there is polling to support this approach – but it doesn’t really make much sense to me.
In many cases the same government ministers that deny there are failures or accept any responsibility for failures are very keen to claim responsibility for every positive achievement Australia has demonstrated in dealing with the pandemic. How many times have we all been subjected to news bulletins with pictures of our leaders dressed in white lab coats holding up vials of vaccine as an eager media pack celebrated? And when pallets of vaccines finally started to arrive at airports, the media covered their unloading and transport across the tarmac as though we were watching a moon landing. We celebrated that we were first in the queue for vaccines and that Australia was a real COVID-19 winner having avoided mass infections and deaths – not that this was a race.
Of course, Australia is a relatively isolated island and we have had good state and territory governments that generally put health interests above economic interests. Still, we all did well in containing the virus, at least until the inconsistent vaccine purchasing and roll out was compounded by leaking quarantine hotels.
Without good access to the details of government decision-making processes, the negotiations with vaccine developing companies, the tendering and selection of providers for all the aspects of a vaccine roll out and provision of quarantine services, it is difficult to make any informed comment about what went wrong. Perhaps an over-reliance on private contractors might have contributed to some of the problems, but this is largely speculation.
We can safely say accessing the vaccines we needed when we needed them is a fail, having good IT backed contact tracing systems is a fail, having contracted the right people to ensure those most at risk were vaccinated in a timely manner is a fail, developing an appropriate quarantine capacity is a fail, consistent public messaging is a fail, and investing in better systems and processes when failures emerged is a fail.
When we reflect on what all these government failures mean for the charities sector, the question of how charities deal with responsibilities, targets and performance measures emerges as a fundamental issue.
Most of the staff I have worked with or employed are strongly motivated by a desire to deliver better outcomes for the people they serve. They actively monitor their own performance through their contact with the people they serve. There are many areas of charitable work where the biggest challenge is not getting people to accept responsibility when things do not work out, but pointing out the limitations of their role and especially their capacity to change people’s lives and circumstances.
When people I was working with to change their lives ended up back in the same situation or even worse than when I began my work with them, I felt it personally. As a teacher in prison, a probation officer for young offenders, a manager for people with mental health and drug and alcohol problems, I failed too often. It usually took a wiser and more experienced colleague to offer the insight I lacked; it was not really my fault; I should not blame myself. I learned to use these failures as an opportunity to actively reflect on my practice and how I could have or should have handled things differently. Often this process of failure and reflection informed a deeper understanding of how many different and overlapping systems can conspire to deny opportunity to people in need. In my own experience and the experience of many leaders I know and respect, it is our failures that provided us with the most important lessons in success.
At a broader organisational level, we all know success has many parents, but failure can be an orphan. And herein lies the challenge. Most leaders do not mind who claims credit for success – the more the better because sharing success is good. But failure is something more important.
Failures within government and bigger organisations are often critical indicators of what needs to change. It is the non-compliance reports in the monitoring of quality standards that are most essential in driving performance improvements.
One of the more common sayings in sport is that you are either winning or learning. In leadership courses around the world, the capacity to learn from failure (rather than just repeat it) is often emphasised as a necessary skill.
Charities are usually open to embracing staff failure at a personal practice level and learning from it, but they do not always monitor and reflect on their organisational performance in the same way. The major barrier to this process of active improvement is that some charities are not able to allocate the resources needed to monitor outcomes and impact. It is difficult for an organisation to reflect on its achievements and failures if there is not good information about the degree to which the organisation is achieving its purpose.
Our federal government has spent the last month telling us the roll out of vaccinations is not a race. In one way, they were right. You cannot have a race if there is no defined finish line, no targets, no monitoring of performance.
Now the government who tells us it is “comfortable with where we’re at” is desperately scrambling to try and figure out how many aged care workers have been vaccinated. They do not know. There is inadequate monitoring and reporting. We can only assume that the systems they have set up with the private contractors do not offer incentives for accurate data to be provided.
The government has provided a beacon of failure we can all learn from. Charities need to find a way to invest in actively monitoring, evaluating, and identifying failure. Anything less would make charities not much better than a government in denial that anything is wrong. And in many ways, that is so much worse than failure.