Limitations of the bureaucratic box

By Major Brendan Nottle

There have been enormous lessons for many of us during the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of the big learnings for me has been how important centralised leadership is during a global health crisis.  How many times did we hear the messaging, “Wash your hands regularly. Sanitise. Mask up. Socially distance. If you feel unwell get tested and isolate until you receive your results.” It was messaging that we could all regurgitate because the messages were repeated ad infinitum.  

Another example of useful centralised leadership was the nimble and flexible response to hundreds of thousands of Australians whose employment suddenly became uncertain or, in fact, disappeared.  JobKeeper and JobSeeker were terms that did not exist 12 months ago. However, in 2020, they became a salve that soothed the jangled nerves of so many.

While centralised leadership proved, for the large part, to be highly useful and necessary, it also shone the spotlight on the fact that not all individuals and their situations perfectly fit within the bureaucratic box. 

For example, in March 2020, the state government responded flexibly and nimbly to hundreds of people sleeping rough on the streets of the city and surrounding areas. They provided free, ongoing hotel accommodation to everyone that required it. It was a compassionate and thoughtful response which benefitted many in the middle of a pandemic and a very cold Melbourne winter.  However, there were 35 to 40 rough sleepers who refused the offer of free hotel accommodation and they remained on the streets.  Many people responded by saying, “that group clearly doesn’t want to be helped”. But when we took the time to engage with this group, we discovered that the vast majority of them were dealing with serious mental health issues. They recognised that going into a hotel room would have exacerbated their issues, causing them to potentially harm themselves, others or the property itself. The issue highlighted here is, they don’t fit in the bureaucratic box, hence they were locked out of receiving desperately needed support.

Another example occurred on Boxing Day. We received a call from a Park Ranger from the City of Melbourne. He had found an elderly woman living in a tent in the Carlton Gardens next to the Royal Exhibition Buildings. A terrible storm had occurred on Christmas night and the woman’s tent was covered in branches. Fortunately, she was not injured but the Park Ranger indicated that it would only be a matter of time before she was injured if she remained in that location due to deteriorating weather conditions. We attempted to contact the designated homelessness entry point to arrange housing for the woman. The phone remained unanswered for 35 minutes. Two seasonal housing workers were becoming increasingly frustrated with the delay. How on earth do we expect people who are homeless, often with a multitude of other complex issues, to navigate their way into and around a bureaucratic box that even professional and experienced housing workers give up on? The frustration of the situation caused us to work outside of the system. We worked with the woman as we sat next to her tent in the Carlton Gardens. We eventually discovered that she had two children that she had not spoken with for several years. We also discovered that she and they were desperate to be reunited. She also learnt that she had six grandchildren that she didn’t know existed.

We drove the woman for two and a half hours to a regional location and reunited her with family. It was emotional. It was moving and it was absolutely the right thing to do.

Does the bureaucratic box work? Yes it does. For some but definitely not for all, especially the complex cases. Surely as a society we have a responsibility to do all we can to care for all people in need, especially the most vulnerable. Indeed, it was Socrates who reminded us that societies will be judged by the way they care for the most vulnerable. May the judgement that eventually heads our way be certain proof that we all do genuinely care, especially for those that are locked out of the bureaucratic box.

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