Civil disservice

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 November, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 November, 1998, 12:00am

Unfair though the public image of the bureaucrat as a tea-drinking paper-shuffler may be, that picture always gains a little extra currency when the Director of Audit's report is published each November.

However isolated they may be, incidents of time wasted and money needlessly frittered away continue to hover over the reputation of the civil service.

This year the most striking points involve a number of blue-collar employees shown to be working something less than a five-hour-day and apparently spending the rest of the time in personal pursuits.

News of the sinecure enjoyed by meter readers and a 30 per cent overstaffing in the refuse collection department is in addition to the disclosure by this newspaper earlier in the month of a government department which has no official role, and yet wields a $1 million budget and has a staff of four.

All this is a legitimate source of concern. Plainly, the Government could recoup a substantial sum if it looked for cost-cutting measures in its own house before casting about for economies from the social welfare budget or other public services.

That is the aim of Tung Chee-hwa's Enhanced Productivity Programme. However, judging by these latest revelations, its five per cent target is on the low side.

As usual on such occasions, the Government quickly gives assurances that matters have been rectified. Meter readers now have extended duties, 23 refuse collection teams have been deleted - and so forth. What these assurances do not do, however, is throw any light on why these abuses were tolerated in the first place. Had an efficient regulatory system been in operation, such a large-scale waste of money and manpower would never have arisen. Communications seem to be as erratic between departments in Lower Albert Road as they apparently were within the Airport Authority.

What the latest Director of Audit's report demonstrates is that there is a need for a tightening up of these failings if the civil service is not to lose its reputation as Asia's most efficient.