A matter of trust

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 February, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 February, 1996, 12:00am

IF Andrew So Kwok-wing were a popular figure with civil servants, he would not be doing his job. As the ombudsman, or Commissioner for Administrative Complaints (COMAC), his role is to investigate and publicly criticise maladministration by the Government which provides his budget and support-staff. It would be surprising if officials were falling over themselves to give Mr So the means to do the job effectively.

Nevertheless, if the Governor is serious about public accountability, he should give priority to funding for the ombudsman, even if it means trampling on a few civil-service sensibilities. COMAC already has a nine-month backlog of complaints to deal with. With a 133 per cent increase in complaints projected for the coming year, Mr So's team of 60 cannot hope to deal with the growing workload. The 10 additional staff the Government has promised on a temporary basis will not suffice to clear the backlog, never mind deal with the new work coming in.

The ombudsman's response to the crisis he faces has been clever. By asking departments to investigate complaints against themselves, he has effectively forced the Government to provide some additional resources by the back door. The additional staff will be sitting with their colleagues, not in the ombudsman's office. But they will have to be taken off other work in the department to do the job under COMAC's supervision.

However, while his ruse might be smart office politics, it is extremely poor psychology and an inadequate response to a public need. The surge in complaints is partly the result of allowing direct access to the ombudsman without initial vetting by a legislative councillor. But it is also due to increased public awareness and trust in his office. By asking petitioners to allow their complaints to be investigated by the department concerned, Mr So will undermine that trust. Some complaints may be trivial and time-wasting, but Hong Kong people are not stupid. They rightly assume that officials investigating their peers will come under pressure to dismiss or downplay complaints. If the alleged maladministration arises from standard procedure which no one has previously questioned, they may not even understand the nature of the complaint.

Mr So should now announce that departmental self-investigation system is a temporary measure intended only to clear the existing backlog and set a deadline for its abolition. He should explain what resources he requires and enlist the legislature to fight on his and the public's behalf. And he should make the case for greater accountability publicly and forcefully, not by bureaucratic ploys which weaken his own moral position. The Government, meanwhile, should stop trying to sideline his office and facilitate his investigations. It may be a tall order for an administration unused to accounting for its actions, but it is essential if public trust in Government is to be maintained at a time when people need all the reassurance they can get.