Hong Kong's tainted water scare

Hong Kong officials lack crisis management skills

The debacle following the lead-in-water scandal in 2015 is a worrying sign of the culture in the civil service

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 April, 2017, 3:50am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 April, 2017, 3:50am

The scandal in which water supply for tens of thousands of public rental flats was tainted with lead has exposed serious flaws in the monitoring of public housing projects. Subsequent investigations by auditors and lawmakers found that the follow-up actions taken by the government after the 2015 crisis were also unsatisfactory. The performance falls short of what is expected of a responsible government.

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It is baffling that officials could not produce any records on the first seven cross-departmental discussions on how to handle the fallout. The Legislative Council committee looking into the matter heard that officials were “too focused” at the time and did not realise that no minutes were taken. The explanation is hardly convincing. While lawmakers said they could not find any evidence of the departments concerned trying to cover up the scandal, it begs the question of what prompted officials to record their subsequent meetings. The failure to record official meetings is not just a deviation from standing procedure; it also prevented lawmakers and the public from monitoring government performance.

Director of Housing Stanley Ying Yiu-hong deserved the criticisms that were levelled at him. The Legco committee expressed alarm and strong resentment over the Housing Department’s lax attitude in coordinating, managing and handling of information. It noted that the government had released inaccurate information on water test samples. Adding to the dismay is the slow pace of replacing the water pipes in question. As of July last year, at the 11 housing estates affected, only between 18.5 per cent to 45.6 per cent of the pipes had been replaced. There is also no target completion date for the works. In response, the Housing Department said the lack of records had not compromised the functions of the meetings.

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We hope it does not reflect a wider civil service culture. But it is not the first time that departments have been slammed for poor governance. Bureaucracy and inertia mean officials often do not take steps to rectify questionable, long-standing practices until they snowball into a major crisis. Officials must strive to improve their crisis management skills.