This is a short reflection on a side project I undertook during the early days of COVID-19. In late 2020 I set out to raise awareness and encourage reform of a COVID-era travel policy of the Australian Government. In this post, I set out a number of take-aways from that experience which might be relevant to other individuals trying to facilitate policy or legal reform in their own backyard.
(The COVID years were a tricky time for Governments across the globe. Hard decisions needed to be made which were inevitably unpopular and criticised as either too draconian, too expensive, laisse faire, ill-targeted, or all of the above. Whilst I have my own views on certain of these policies, this is not a political piece. I set out the policy background for context only.)
In an effort to manage the capacity of the COVID-19 hotel quarantine programs, in early July 2020 the Australian Government capped the number of people who could fly into the country. The cap was a significant reduction in the number of people, mostly Australian citizens, wanting to fly home during this period.
The practical effect of the passenger caps was that airlines prioritised first and business class passengers. Most people flying home had to pay the mandatory fees for hotel quarantine upon arrival, usually in the order of AUD $3,000 each. The costs multiplied for couples and families, and were prohibitive to most. In short, during this period, only the wealthiest Australians were able to return home.
I was amongst those who was unable to return home (albeit in the relatively plush streets of London, and only for a matter of months – so please, no tears for me.)
What did I do?
I quickly realised that I was not alone. With no job and (literally) nowhere to go, I built a website (passengercaps.info) to raise awareness of the policy and its effect on Australians around stranded the world. It included resources, details of the policy history, media reports and links to relevant groups, politicians and journalists.
What did I learn?
I set out below a few take-aways from my experience. These observations may be trite to someone working in PR, web development or the not-for-profit sector. But real-world, hands-on work was novel for this lawyer and I hope my reflections might be useful to someone in a similar position.
1) If not you – who?
In my case, the policy I wanted reformed was brand new. The changes had been brought in almost overnight in response to rapidly unravelling covid crises. There was no established industry. No lobbyists. No organisations already devoted to the issue who we could reach out to.
There was just a few thousand teaches, engineers, nurses, bar staff, parents and students – ordinary people – who had found themselves stranded across the globe overnight.
And then there was me. I had spent a few days researching the issue. I had some basic understanding of how the puzzle fit together, and thanks to my perpetually rescheduled flight home, I had some spare time.
So why not me?
I am trained in law, fancy myself as decent written communicator and understood some of mechanisms of government. This is useful when writing copy and deciding which politician to address my angry email to. But I am not a graphic designer or website developer. I am a very reluctant self-promoter and have never touched PR.
After a couple of weeks trudging along myself, I was approached by Pieter den Heten. He was a web developer and UX designer. He was also stranded.
We ended up coordinating our websites. He had a brilliant google-maps interface which permitted users to plot individual locations and tell personalised stories. We included links to each other’s sites and adopted similar website themes. The quality and volume of the content was substantially increased as a result of that coordination.
My advice? Find passionate people with different skills to you, and get them on board.
3) It is hard work, and often thankless
It is useful to start these endeavours with a realistic understanding of how challenging it can be. It allows you to temper your expectations and pace yourself.
A website needs to differentiate itself from the competition in order to add value and attract traffic. However, to add that value takes time and a lot of work: scouring the news each day; tracking the day to day policy changes; updating the news articles; adding new sections to the site; rewriting the copy; spreading the word on social media; responding to private messages.
You can run on adrenalin for a while, but your input is likely to taper off in the medium term. Set your goals accordingly.
Further, as much as your ideas might make sense to you, they will inevitably not have as much traction with the general public for whom the policy does not directly impact. People have their own worries. Coalitions take time to build. Elections are infrequent. Expect roadblocks and issue fatigue.
That is not say it shouldn’t be done. It only takes one person saying that you helped them feel noticed and less alone for it to all feel worthwhile.
(Cover image ‘Australia’ source: Pexels)