Two types of jam

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 May, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 May, 2005, 12:00am

When I worked in the government secretariat, more than 20 years ago, I recall a file which circulated once a quarter, requiring us to provide an update on actions taken in response to formal decisions made by the governor in the executive council.

Dealing with this file was one of the trickier challenges which we civil servants faced. We might find ourselves having to paper over delays, or to explain tactfully how some Exco decision - despite having been based on our recommendations in the first place - was now proving flawed or impracticable.

No doubt, some similar file still circulates today. The motivation is a worthy and necessary one - to keep civil servants on their toes, to avoid embarrassing delays and, in today's jargon, to achieve 'closure'. The public does not like uncertainty or dithering.

Those who have experience of public departments in other places would probably judge Hong Kong's administration to be remarkably efficient at getting things done, whether major actions decreed by Exco or minor matters despatched by officials further down the line. When there are signs of masterful inaction, or of subjects being buried in the 'too difficult' box, it is probably more often the result of deliberate political foot-dragging than of administrative incompetence.

Two examples spring to mind. First, whatever became of the boundary facilities improvement tax - the euphemism for making people pay to cross the border? This was, in many ways, a very sensible revenue-raising idea. It was proposed in the March 2002 budget by the previous financial secretary, and was last heard of in October 2003 when the current incumbent confirmed that, although the rationale was still valid, the public was not ready for it. Since then, not a word. Is it buried? Do we have closure?

Next, tunnel tolls. To anyone even only half awake, it should have been obvious, within a couple of years of the opening of the Western Harbour Tunnel in 1997, that there was something amiss about the spread of traffic across the three tunnels, and that, by inference, the toll relativities were far from optimal. Several years on and - no surprise - there has been no miracle cure. And we are now told that transport officials need yet another year to consult on 12 options which they have belatedly identified.

Why has it taken so long to grasp the nettle? I can think of two explanations. First, no one wanted to admit that the administrative model of franchised commercial tunnel operators, as put in place for the Eastern Harbour Tunnel and western crossing, was, from the transport-efficiency angle, flawed.

Second, given that situation, it was difficult to devise any solution to the congestion problem at the government-owned Cross-Harbour Tunnel that would not involve a rise in its tolls. And, to coin a phrase, the public was surely not ready for that. The government does not seem ready to assert itself on such an issue if there is the slightest risk of hostility.

Last week we saw transport officials falling over themselves to apologise for jams caused by a broken tree and some collapsed scaffolding. They were, of course, in no way responsible for the accidents. A taskforce has been set up to review how to cope with traffic problems arising from such incidents.

I hesitate to suggest that this is an overreaction, since some good may come of the review in terms of improved communication, both among departments and with the public. But would that officials were equally zealous in addressing that other traffic jam, by the Cross-Harbour Tunnel, which has been left unattended for so long. Of course, expediting the removal of fallen trees can only draw acclaim, whereas a higher toll would incite protests.

Until someone displays a bit more decisiveness, however, that awkward file will no doubt continue to be passed around like a hot potato.

Tony Latter is a visiting professor at the University of Hong Kong