The View

The 'stupidity' of bureaucratic systems in Hong Kong or anywhere else

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 September, 2015, 9:27am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 September, 2015, 9:27am

Out in the surreal world where bureaucrats meet members of the public, including those of us who are trying to run businesses, there is a constant battle to circumvent the red tape that wastes endless amounts of time.

This is hardly news but the tenacity of this problem means it cannot be ignored. Even when you get used to this time wasting something crops up to remind you just how stultifying it can be as I was reminded by a recent encounter with a bureaucrat while trying to obtain a permit for a routine delivery to premises in a restricted zone.

Previous attempts at obtaining this permit were thwarted because no one in the office would deign to pick up the phone. When the delivery truck arrived I suggested that the driver could go to the office and collect the permit. However the bureaucrat insisted that this could not be done because no prior notification had been received.

The driver then asked the official to call me. I explained that I was indeed waiting for this delivery and had been unable to secure a permit because no one in her office answered the phone. I suggested that as we were talking could she just settle this matter without further fuss? This suggestion was met with the following response:

Bureaucrat – ‘We can’t do that because how do we know whether you are speaking from your registered number?’

Me – ‘You’ve just dialed my number so you must know what it is, so what’s the problem?’

Bureaucrat – ‘That’s not our system’.

Me – ‘Can we get this clear, I need to call you on the same line we are talking on?’

Bureaucrat – ‘Yes’.

Me - ‘And what purpose would be served by this?’

Bureaucrat – ‘That’s our system’.

The conversation then descended into a somewhat more vigorous exchange of views but ended up with a ‘one-off concession’ to issue the permit. I would like to say that this is an extreme example of stupidity but it seems highly likely that readers can furnish others.

Meanwhile back in the twenty first century it might be imagined that none of this would be necessary however it is part of a pattern of obstruction within this bureaucracy.

Companies are still required to furnish a company chop for all manner of purposes because that’s how the system works. Why is this so? The answer is that the system requires it. Anyone intent on some kind of fraud involving the use of a company chop can simply pop over to a chop maker and get a chop made, it’s that simple. So why are chops a guarantee of anything?

Then there are a whole range of other interactions with the bureaucracy that require furnishing countless documents, this may include the Business Registration Certificate, the Certificate of Incorporation, a signed and, of course, chopped letter from an authorized person, plus goodness knows what else. Maybe there is a case for furnishing all these documents at the outset of any given procedure but for repeated interactions, what is the need?

Meanwhile the government makes great play of the fact that it is embracing the digital age and claims to have enhanced convenience by allowing transactions to be made on its cranky electronic platform - sounds good eh? However the reality is that the burden of producing great volumes of paperwork has merely moved from the physical page to the electronic page, if anything electronic transactions end up being even more complex.

In some places governments have recognised that this kind of nonsense is a significant burden on business and they have drastically reduced the volume of paperwork, an innovation that also saves public funds because it sharply reduces civil servant’s work.

None of this is even contemplated in Hong Kong despite the fact that the government has a body rejoicing in the name of ‘Efficiency Unit’. Its mission statement claims that it is ‘a change agent and catalyst for improving the management and delivery of public services so that the needs of the community are met in more user-friendly and effective ways’.

So far, so amusing, but for the full throttle of official satire just visit its website for updates on its achievements. There you will find a cluster of notices advertising vacancies at the unit, then there is news that a ‘task force’ has extended the deadline for a consultation exercise for something called the Food Support Service (I’m in the food business and also have no idea what this is), the only other bit of news for this year is that its website has been revamped and that’s it.

It is entirely possible that the fine people who run this unit are genuinely doing their best to fulfil their mission statement but they have precious little to show for their work.


Stephen Vines runs companies in the food sector and moonlights as a journalist and a broadcaster