Department could do better

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 February, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 24 February, 1995, 12:00am

ON August 12, 1993 you published a letter from the Director of Immigration, headlined, 'Long wait is unnecessary'. It was written in response to a complaint about waiting times at the Immigration Department's headquarters.

It said, inter alia: ' . . . applicants may choose to leave our offices and come back at a later time when their turn is due. Our officers are always willing to advise applicants on the approximate time to return upon request'.

My experience on February 10, of this year, demonstrates that this simply is not true. I attended the fifth floor of the Immigration Department's offices to process an application for approval of a change of employment, arriving at 1.45pm. I was given a brown card numbered 514 and was told to wait to be called.

With several hundred people waiting, there was insufficient seating to accommodate us all. By 3.30pm the holders of brown cards, numbering lower than 300, were still being called at the rate of about one every 10 minutes. I was becoming tired of standing and noticed that a man next to me held a brown card numbered below 350. When I asked him how long he had been waiting, he replied: 'three hours'.

I approached the officer at the acceptance counter and told him I wished to return later. When I asked him what time I should come back, he said: 'No, you must wait to be called.' I was eventually called at 5.05 pm, after a wait of three hours and 20 minutes - simply to hand in a bundle of documents and be given an appointment for a second interview. It was quite obvious that others had waited just as long as I had.

Complaints like this one invariably evoke the standard response: 'In the absence of specific details, it is not possible for us to investigate or make any comment.' In his 1993 letter, the director said his department was 'constantly reviewing its policies and procedures with a view to enhancing productivity'. Perhaps I may make a few helpful suggestions: Display prominently near the entrance the documentary requirements for each type of application, so that people do not have to wait for an interview before discovering that they need to complete forms, make photocopies, etc.

Adopt a self-service tag-dispensing system.

Display a chart indicating the busiest and slackest periods of the week, according to experience, as is done by the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank.

Display estimated waiting times, as is done at the Transport Department.

Conduct periodical covert tests of procedural efficiency.

Ensure that counter officers are not only aware of the 'no waiting' policy, but actively encourage people to return later.

Finally, and most importantly: Automate and decentralise document processing.

I have little hope that any of these suggestions will be adopted. Having had business for many years with various government departments I can say, without reservation, that in my experience the Immigration Department is the most officious, arbitrary, secretive, defensive and inhospitable of all in its dealings with its so-called 'clients'.