Verdict awaited on performance pledges

MR Chris Patten's next scheduled public performance is likely to disappoint those few people still hoping he will stand up and make some kind of counter-blast to the threats from Beijing. Rather than abandon his now well-established policy of biting his tongue and keeping his silence, the Governor has made it clear he will not use tomorrow's question and answer session in the Legislative Council as a platform to hit back at China. He will take no questions on his constitutional package, and legislators caneither take the rare opportunity to focus on those important issues too long overshadowed by the political reform row or practise a studied silence of their own.

The public performance pledges, for instance, demanded from government departments by Mr Patten as part of his top-to-bottom review of the administration are not exactly a subject on everybody's lips. Given their potential for political capital, it is surprising they are so rarely mentioned by the Government's propaganda machine. Promises of speedy, polite and efficient service could enhance the lives of every resident and every visitor, providing they are lived up to and represent a real improvement on what went before.

Their genesis is in Britain's Citizens' Charter, widely criticised as a political gimmick intended to take the public's mind off the country's real problems. Given this background, it is extraordinary that the much more user-friendly Hongkong versions have not been trumpeted from the rooftops by a government currently cooking in the hottest political stew in years.

Part of the administration's coyness may be attributed to the fact that initial results are at best mixed. The public is no doubt pleased to receive faster and more courteous service at counters in departments ranging from Inland Revenue to Trade and Health. In the case of the Health Department, the pledge is for patients to be seen within an hour of making an appointment. While that is encouraging, the snag is that it may take several visits and lengthy queuing before an appointment can be secured.

The real failing of these public performance pledges at present is that departments appear to be doing no more than promising to meet targets they know they can achieve already with little extra effort and should have been meeting a long time ago. What many appear to be avoiding are more fundamental re-examinations of how their departments fail to serve the public. Until they do so, performance pledges will be seen as a political ploy, albeit underplayed.