Tenants put at risk from bureaucratic handwashing
When water from a flat above started leaking into Fung Ka-keung's home, he did the logical thing. He appealed to the Buildings Department, the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) and the district council office responsible for his Kau U Fong neighbourhood. As it appears the water may be coming from a toilet, there may also be a health risk, not to mention much inconvenience to Mr Fung and his elderly mother.
Yet one year after the leaks began, nothing has been done. Each agency Mr Fung has contacted has offered some variation of 'not my department' as the reason for its failure to act.
We reported Mr Fung's story this week, along with the news that the government is considering streamlining the procedures for dealing with such problems. The change, if it comes to pass, would be much-welcomed - if long overdue.
Four government departments deal with water leakages, but each in a limited way. The Buildings Department, for instance, deals only with structural issues. It told Mr Fung and his mother that because the leak did not pose a danger in this area, its job was finished. The FEHD tested the water and could not determine the source. It is easy to see how this runaround could go on and on.
The matter would be trivial if not for two things. First, such leaks pose environmental and public health dangers and it would be a tragedy if they went unfixed because of excessive bureaucracy. Second, the red tape Mr Fung encountered is still found elsewhere, despite some recent progress towards making government processes more efficient and easing unnecessarily restrictive rules.
Approval to operate restaurants can now be granted in weeks, as opposed to months, thanks to a streamlined application that has the FEHD playing a co-ordinating role. Private schools are now allowed to offer classes on Sundays, after a longstanding and unreasonable ban was ended last year. And of course, business registration, tax collection and other key services are still operated with the degree of efficiency that citizens and foreign investors have come to expect.
But there are areas such as the one highlighted by Mr Fung's story, where overlapping jurisdictions and a practice of passing the buck have led to frustration and, in some cases, lost business or delayed investment. Setting up a new school, for instance, still requires approval from up to seven departments, a process that can take up to a year. Those schools wishing to use building designs different from ones standardised by the Architectural Services Department face another wait of up to two years while yet more bureaucrats review the plans.
The government is in the midst of a process of cutting costs and reducing staff. Efficiency gains from the exercise would be enhanced if red tape were tackled at the same time.