Speak up vs. Border Bungle

Ethics expert Jane Arnott on how better speak up culture could have prevented New Zealand’s Covid-19 border failures…

Never has a full-scale investigation into system failure started with a review of speak up processes. Maybe it should.

Let’s start with New Zealand’s border bungle.

While competing IT systems and associated problems share some of the guilt there were many participants and observers of a system that was not up to speed.

New Zealand’s border was overwhelmed. Quarantine facilities were overwhelmed and arriving passengers, citizens at large were overwhelmed.

The media however were ready and waiting. And so the stories, the interviews, the photos and selfies emerged.

Splendid isolation was transformed into a maelstrom of news.

Some returning citizens were struggling with being dislodged from a life they had come to enjoy while others were charged with the excitement of picking up the reins from when they left. Even so, managed quarantine became a hotbed of both indignation and trepidation.

Throw together a diaspora of people from overseeing agencies as diverse as government departments and bus companies to hotel chains, cleaning companies, and security firms, and any belief in a cohesive team, with a united view of their end goal, was wildly ill-placed.

From that point, it was a direct line to recognizing that none of the people engaged in various ‘hotel arrests’ would have realized the criticality of the individual roles each held.

If we back up the bus however it was as plain as daylight that the entire value chain needed to be fully briefed.  Better still, each needed to be made fully aware of their precise role combined with the importance of identifying and strengthening any weak link – speaking up at best.

It is indisputable that a collision of company cultures and intense pressure threw any inclination to speak up out the window. Hasty decision making, untried processes, insufficient briefing, and a confused chain of command led to less of a perfect storm and more of a dog’s breakfast.

In such scenarios, however, speaking up – along with immediate investigatory powers – could have prevented the system failure from getting out of hand.

When designing any new system, where culture has no time to take shape, an emphasis on an external speak up line that transcends individual issues and fast tracks reporting can save more than just face.

Organizational systems do not exist without the humans they interact with and influence. But humans are notoriously problematic to manage – from daily dysfunction to random inattention or just plain turning rogue.

Systems are designed to expedite performance. And performance expectations, once set at a political, board or stakeholder level, are overlaid with enormous trust. Trust in everyone knowing what to do and when to do it.

On this basis, system failure is rarely anticipated and as a consequence, speak up processes are rarely embedded as part and parcel of the design process.

But, for every investigation, there is a failure, sometimes multiple failures of individuals to speak up.

These days it’s not as plausible to suggest that no-one wants to say anything. People generally have a lot to say.  Take social media and how rapidly a whole new generation of people wanting to influence or say something, ‘speaker uppers’ (SPUs) if you like, have surfaced.

Alongside this are even more people, from the Prime Minister down, who want to save face – to be forewarned that something isn’t working so that they have a chance to fix it before the media jump in for a field day.

Championing the benefit of speaking up in a timely manner requires different narratives. Key audience factors such as seniority, responsibility, personal risks as well as the policies and processes that define their work environment need to be considered.

At issue is convincing someone that there will be someone who wants to listen, is capable of grasping the significance of the information and effectively tasked with ensuring it reaches the best person for the best outcome. An external reporting line meets all of these criteria in one sweep of professionalism.

External reporting lines such as New Zealand owned and operated Report it Now delivers dedicated reporting lines, experienced and unbiased staff, and familiarity with what to ask and how to paint a picture quickly. This would have allowed for the worst aspects of system failures to have been averted.

Whether it’s saving face or saving the nation from an overarching bungle, speaking up has a role to play and value to add.

It’s time that this was better understood.

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