Departments cannot outsource responsibility, says ombudsman
The ombudsman yesterday warned government departments not to assume that their statutory responsibilities can be outsourced along with services. The warning from Alice Tai Yuen-ying followed an investigation into the Housing Department's use of property service agents that revealed administrative problems.
Ms Tai said that while outsourcing of services was cost-effective and flexible, departments must realise that they still had the responsibility to monitor, supervise and rectify errors.
Her probe found the Housing Department's monitoring of agents, to whom management of some public rental housing estates has been outsourced, was 'lacklustre'.
Out of 153 public rental housing estates, 84 are managed by agents, who operate independently and are responsible for property, project and tenant management, and tenant complaints.
But tenants complained the agents' performance was not up to standard, leading to undue delays in refurbishment and repair work. Problems such as illegal hawking and noise nuisances also remained unresolved because agents lacked legal authority to compel action.
'The main problem is that the Housing Department did not give PSAs enough support,' Ms Tai said. 'In some cases, the Housing Department should have intervened earlier or department staff did not do enough to rectify problems.
'We want to stress that contracting out services is not the same as contracting out responsibility. In the final analysis, responsibility for delivery of service remains with the department,' she said.
Between January and March, the department received 209 complaints against agents and 131 against itself for property management problems. Ms Tai recommended the department be 'firmer, more positive and proactive in monitoring' agents and give them 'adequate and timely support' and organise regular briefings for housing and agent staff. Deputy director of housing for estates management Lau Kai-hung said the department had already started implementing the recommendations, taking over 'major maintenance responsibilities for nine of 46 existing PSA contracts'.
'Forums and training sessions will be organised for [department and PSA] staff to enhance their understanding of our policy and management practices, as well as the importance of customer service.'