Two public images of the government that have emerged from two unrelated incidents are both ironic and thought-provoking. The swine flu crisis saw a government in action - from the chief executive to airport immigration officers, even before a Mexican visitor became the first confirmed case on May 1. Confronted with the enormity of the unknown in the H1N1 outbreak, and learning from the bitter lessons of the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak in 2003, the government took no chances in managing the risk. Despite some negative publicity about the quarantine arrangements in a Wan Chai hotel, the potential risk of a community outbreak was significantly reduced. Even the most cynical critics could not find any major blunders by the government in its handling of the public health scare. The governing team got a 'pass' in the first round of the battle against swine flu. However, the same administration failed miserably last week when a cleaner was killed by a security gate at the entrance to a government hostel for the mentally handicapped in Hung Hom. Local media and the public reacted with disbelief and outrage when it was revealed that the gate was found to have been faulty five months ago and was to have been replaced this month. Some newspaper editorials went so far as to suggest that the victim had been killed by a bureaucracy plagued with incompetence, inertia and a weak appreciation of risk. The Architectural Services Department has been ordered to compile a report within 10 days on why it took so long to arrange for the gate to be replaced. Most people have already drawn their own conclusion: that it is yet another case of the civil service being disabled by bureaucratic rigidities and inertia. The tragedy came as a top-level team, led by Chief Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen, was trying to find ways to improve the tree-management system to help rebuild confidence in the administration after a university student was killed by a falling tree in Stanley last year. The gate tragedy has inflicted fresh damage on the reputation of the civil service. It comes as little surprise that newspapers have revealed more cases of long delays to small construction and repair projects in districts. For example, Democrat legislator Lee Wing-tat said the Kwai Tsing District Board had been told by officials that it would take a year to construct a zebra crossing, and nine months to widen a taxi stand. The contrasting images of the government are a reminder of the departing salvos fired by the just-retired Ombudsman, Alice Tai Yuen-ying, in March. Ms Tai lamented that government officials were 'merely putting out fires while ignoring their job of supervision and management'. Put in the context of the swine flu scare, the Hong Kong administration can hardly be faulted for taking extra steps, verging on draconian measures, to prevent a pandemic. However slim the chance of an outbreak, the government must be seen to have acted. However, the system of government is not only tested in times of crisis. People's perceptions of the government are often shaped by the words and deeds of the chief executive and his ministers and, importantly, by the performance of frontline civil servants when they seek help from them for the small things in daily life. Government officials have cited rising public expectations, increasingly hostile political parties and an erratic media as factors that have made their job more difficult and thankless. Hongkongers have demonstrated a degree of maturity and balance during the economic recession and health crisis. The fact that people will be fair in assessing the government's performance should, at least, give officials some comfort and confidence. Chris Yeung is the Post's editor-at-large.