Gridlock in the system

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 May, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 May, 2005, 12:00am

Freak rainstorms are not uncommon in Hong Kong. The collapse of trees or scaffolding would not be a serious incident in a city known for its advanced infrastructure and efficient management.

The fact that strong winds and a heavy downpour on Monday last week left half of Kowloon gridlocked exposed more than just the so-called 'blind spots' of the Transport Department's closed-circuit television cameras.

It also raised questions about inter-departmental co-ordination during emergencies. More importantly, though, the jams raised serious doubts about the strength of institutions and highlighted the fragility of public confidence in the government.

Given the fact that Hong Kong is a compact city, any suggestion of a breakdown in communications or a blackout on matters like traffic flows makes no sense. With a first-class mass-transport system and a pool of expertise in traffic management, it is beyond belief that the collapse of a few trees and scaffolding could turn the city upside down.

Yet this is exactly what happened, leaving many questions for experts and officials who will carry out a full-scale reconstruction of events and investigate how the crisis was handled.

Suffice to say that the main problem lies not with the communications hardware, traffic controls or transport facilities. It boils down to the apparent failure of the government to have in place an efficient, effective crisis-management system.

One can only expect any government to become more accountable as civic awareness grows. In Hong Kong, accountability is now deeply entrenched in the political culture. This has brought changes to the bureaucracy, particularly among departments such as transport, weather, and law and order, whose work directly affects the daily lives of people.

Greater efforts by these frontline sections to be accountable to the public - and to be seen to be - seem to have had a negative effect, however. Going strictly by the established rules and procedures has become a shield for bureaucrats to avoid criticism and any witch-hunt when things go wrong.

Ironically, fears of being victimised within the climate of greater accountability have adversely affected common sense, professional judgment and the spirit of teamwork.

In stark contrast to the administration's goal of enhancing accountability, a diffusion of responsibility has adversely affected government efficiency - from the cabinet level to the frontline.

With tens of thousands of people affected by the traffic chaos, it came as no surprise when there was a groundswell of public discontent, which manifested itself in the large number of callers to radio phone-in programmes.

The notion of accountability may seem elusive. But to the average man and woman on the street, it means having a responsible administration that governs effectively in every realm, from traffic management to health care.

Whether it is realistic or not, hopes are high that the imminent elevation of veteran public administrator Donald Tsang Yam-kuen to the post of chief executive will help bring back the so-called good old days of effective administration.

As the jams revealed, there are numerous gridlocks within the bureaucracy - from the entrenched mindsets to the operation and structure of departments - that need to be unblocked for the government to run smoothly and efficiently.

Chris Yeung is the Post's editor at large