Official inertia is fast becoming the culture within bureaucracy
The Ombudsman’s report on maladministration may not appear alarming, but buck-passing and lack of accountability are serious concerns
For a bureaucracy serving more than seven million people, having 5,000-odd complaints a year against maladministration may not seem alarming. The numbers may look even less significant when discounting those that do not warrant full investigation by the Ombudsman. Of the 226 cases probed in 2015-16, only some 80 cases were found to be substantiated. While it may be tempting to conclude that the government has largely done a good job, the real problem comes from the attitude in addressing complaints. Government departments are often too quick to blame shortcomings on shortages of manpower, or pass the buck to other bureaus. And when apologies were tendered, nine in 10 came after intervention by others, according to the watchdog.
The other criticisms over the slow pace of response and lack of coordination across departments are also not new. They were highlighted by the Ombudsman previously. But when they become the general observation by a watchdog that has handled countless complaints over the years, there is every reason to be concerned.
With an establishment of 170,000 staff and dozens of agencies, red tape may seem inevitable. The fine division of duties within the hierarchy means there are also gaps to fill. That makes coordination all the more important. Regrettably, this is woefully lacking across officialdom. The watchdog’s views suggest buck-passing is the general mentality rather than something unique to individual departments.
We trust officials do not need to put themselves into the shoes of those aggrieved to feel the urgency for remedial action. In the lead-in-water crisis last year, the government swiftly sought to contain the fallout by providing temporary water supply and blood tests for affected public housing tenants. Nonetheless there was still a lack of accountability. Despite the damning verdict from a government-appointed inquiry into the scandal last month, senior officials from various departments still sought to excuse themselves of individual responsibility.
Getting the government’s attention to one’s problem is perhaps frustrating enough, even more so when officials turn a blind eye or toss the case around from bureau to bureau. The last thing a complainant wants to hear is that it is a collective problem and is therefore no one’s problem. The not-my-business attitude does not square with the government’s claim to be accountable. The Ombudsman’s report underlines the need for a fundamental change in the mindset and culture within our bureaucracy.