Paying over the odds for a not-so-civil service

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 June, 2007, 12:00am

It is hard to imagine celebrations in the streets over news that civil servants are to get pay increases. Not only are these rises higher than those likely to be received by most people, far too many citizens have seen civil servants at work and come away unimpressed by what they have witnessed.

For various reasons, all too boring to enumerate, I have recently had a clutch of encounters with bureaucrats at the local level. As ever, the experience was mixed, but I got the impression that, if these people were working in the private sector, things would be happening at much greater speed and that, as a customer, I would be getting rather more respect.

There has been some attempt to inculcate civil servants with the idea that citizens are customers, but this is hard to visualise when you enter a government office and start waiting, and then wait some more, as the bureaucrats before you flick listlessly through their buff-coloured folders and chat with slightly more animation to colleagues.

The 'customer', or annoying member of the public as we are better known, comes very much at the back of the queue while all these other important things are under way.

The sloth is far from universal, indeed often at the very lowest end of the civil service food chain some of the most hard-working and pleasant people are to be found, such the relentlessly cheerful and helpful postman who delivers my letters.

Moving up the food chain, I have had a number of dealings with agriculture and fisheries department officials over the fraught matter of a lost dog. They were both helpful and efficient, and gave the impression that their job was to assist the public.

This may also be the function of the Lands Department, but it is hard to tell, because the people I'm trying to contact simply do not respond to letters or, if past experience is anything to go by, only do so grudgingly after months of delay.

Things get a lot worse when the annoying member of the public has the temerity to try and secure a permit or licence from the self-important people who control these things. I do not dare name them, as I fear that it will only make matters worse next time around, when the same application is made, and the masters of obstruction dream up new and excruciating bureaucratic hurdles.

Supplicants for licences are given no slack; there is no sense of entitlement to documents that merely facilitate business, rather, an attitude of being given a privilege. It is exasperating and made aggravating by the self-satisfied manner in which the bureaucrats seem to revel in their obstruction.

It can only be assumed that these attitudes start from the top where the highest officials - who, incidentally, will get the biggest proportionate pay increases - foster an atmosphere of arrogance that quickly percolates down the line.

This culture can be changed, and the process appears to have begun under former governor Chris Patten's regime, when departments were obliged to formulate performance pledges. These remain in place, and can be a source of amusement to wile away the long hours in government offices while waiting for attention. However, the pledges have not given rise to a basic change of attitude.

This needs a far more assertive effort by civil service leaders, but they tend to be creatures of the system and regard the status quo as perfectly acceptable. Reform requires a degree of effort that is beyond them.

That said, the system is not terminally dysfunctional, nor institutionally corrupt, a characterisation that can be made in places not too far away. Yet, can Hong Kong be satisfied with setting such a low standard when it has such impressive ambitions as a world city? The public will happily pay good money to public servants who treat them with the respect they deserve; as this attitude is far from universal, public unhappiness is understandable.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur



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