People are smarter than processes, but they can also be overruled when they do something corrupt, lazy, or wrong. The case of Boris and Morrison.
We preach process, but sometimes people can be smarter than process.
Process needs to bend to fit people; there is no point in having a process that brushes over what its users want. And when it is governments making and breaking the rules, the matter of whether the practice is healthy or unhealthy is rather crucial. So were Boris Johnson and Scott Morrison right or wrong when they bent their own governments’ COVID regulations?
The Case of Australia: Novak Djokovic’s Medical Exemptions
Australia’s lockdown as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic was among the harshest in the world. In response to the initial outbreak, the country closed its borders to all non-residents and quarantined everyone returning for two weeks. Non-essential services shut down, and strict social distancing rules were put in place. The country, one of the few pursuing a “zero-COVID suppression strategy,” finally opened its international borders in November 2021, after almost 600 days. By then, Melbourne alone had had six lockdowns, even with the region having an impressive double-vaccination rate of 90%.
So, when Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic got his Australian visa revoked on the eve of the 2022 Australian Open tennis tournament, many people were not surprised. Djokovic had been initially approved to play even when he wasn’t vaccinated because of a medical exception. His paperwork was legal, and (in theory) he should have had no issue entering the country. However, the announcement of his arrival sparked public outrage and upon landing, the tennis player was denied entry.
The issue was that most Australians had followed the most burdensome lockdown regulations and restrictions to the letter. The perception that Djokovic was given preferential treatment by being issued a medical exemption when it seemed he had made a choice not to get vaccinated pressured Prime Minister Scott Morrison to initially let the Victoria state decide the matter. However, he later backpedalled and encouraged the federal government to make a choice.
Perhaps because he was so publicly opposed to vaccination, when Djokovic arrived at the airport, many Australians felt infuriated. His entry was quickly rejected, and his visa cancelled on the spot. Later, he was handed a three-year ban from entering the country. The thing is, no matter how angry people were at his preferential treatment, the process should have let him enter Australia. Whether Morrison’s stricter stance was a public health strategy, or election campaigning is up for debate.
One thing is sure: Australians were not willing to support Djokovic’s exemption, and the rules were changed for him - just not precisely in the way the player expected.
The Case of The United Kingdom: Boris Johnson and a Party in Lockdown
In early December 2021, reports emerged of social gatherings in Downing Street. Soon after, ITV News reported it had received photographs of Prime Minister Boris Johnson drinking at a garden party. The problem? The photos of this gathering had been taken during lockdown when the rest of the country was not allowed to meet if they belonged to different households.
The pictures sent to ITV showed bottles of champagne, wine, and gin, as well as biscuits, crisps, and party cups. There was little doubt this was some sort of celebration, and it looked like it was one of many. Boris first denied the happenings and later apologised to PMs in the Commons for attending what he believed was a work event. There was immediate public backlash, followed by several requests for him to step down - even from Conservative MPs. Eventually, Sue Grey issued a report concluding a ‘failure of leadership,’ and the PM was issued a £50 police penalty.
The following months saw more reports of staff partying at gardens and government buildings and more apologies from Boris. Eighty-three individuals (including the PM) were found to have committed offences under COVID-19 regulations. Public disquiet over the events reached a boiling point, leading to a significant decline in support for the PM. In early 2022, a number of opposition (and a few Conservative) politicians called for Boris Johnson’s resignation. After several senior Downing Street staggers and the Under-Secretary of State for Justice left, Boris had to say goodbye on 7 July (although he is staying as Prime Minister until 5 September).
The Issue with Process and Democracy
The examples of Australia and the United Kingdom illustrate how some governments create rules to then just gloss over them.
In my view, one of the examples we covered is potentially healthy, and other is definitely not. However, they are both fascinating instances showing how process can be ignored and when it might be right to do so.
For Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, the decision to not let Djokovic in was (or so he thought then!) a political vote-winner. He said, “We are not letting him in, and we are sending him back because he is not vaccinated”. Even when the rules allowed him to enter the country (Djokovic’s medical exception was slightly questionable as he didn’t have an acute medical condition and wasn’t undergoing major surgery; he argued he had had Covid already in December but there were pictures of him looking splendid), people were upset about the decision to let him in. Especially because Australians had survived some of the toughest, most exhausting regulations and had little choice when it came to vaccination.
Regardless of whether we think Djokovic was lying when he said he had the virus and should have therefore been allowed into Australia, the process said it was okay for him to go through immigration without much issue. The problem is that people didn’t want him in. And the government made a choice to close its doors to unvaccinated people (that didn’t have a reason not to receive the vaccine), no matter who they were and what they believed.
We live in a democracy, and Morrison made a political decision. It’s worth mentioning: I don’t necessarily think it was the right one. I think it is a very short-term approach and Australia should have looked more at long-term solutions. But, after all, a government’s responsibility is not just to follow what people want but also to consider whether a decision is sensible or not.
Now, the example with Boris Johnson is, in my view, completely unhealthy. I have always been a big fan of Boris; I think he is great, and he gets things done. But even I, as someone who absolutely respected and valued his work, can’t possibly support him in this case.
Johnson had told us all that we had to lock down, and almost everyone in this country did it. We missed our families and friends, but we did it. Not because the police were there; we chose to stay home, voluntarily, because we knew it was a way to save lives. To look after the most vulnerable people in this country. So we followed the rules, and we were (relatively) happy because the rules were logical. But he ignored them, denied he had done so, and even seemed to laugh at them while people struggled to deal with the distance and the loss of loved ones.
The simple reality is: Boris Johnson shouldn't have broken the rules he himself had put in place. It’s a marvel the issue managed to stay hidden for so long with those photographs in existence. What he did was wrong, and he quickly lost the support of one of his biggest fans.
We need to be able to ask questions about the rules in place, no matter what they are. In the case of Novak Djokovic, the rules were allowing things to happen that the population strongly believed should not have. And whatever the end result, that kind of mechanism whereby the process gets challenged is healthy.
The rules for medical exceptions and vaccinations weren’t working for the people of Australia. So, Scott Morrison made a political decision and changed the process. Boris, on the other hand, completely disregarded the rules his government had established and continued to deny he had any involvement in the Downing Street parties.
We preach process, but people are smarter than process. Our software, beSlick, is built around this principle, and we strongly believe in its power to help us do the things we need to do.
When process controls people, it just doesn't work. So it is often right to ignore process - provided people are smarter than it. This applies, then, in a healthy environment where people are trying to do their best. Sometimes, of course, the process has to overrule the people. Especially when the people are doing corrupt, lazy, or plainly wrong things.