Timely and rightly, the ombudsman has examined an important issue that is sadly overlooked. We are talking about the city’s cleanliness. Too often we think we have only got ourselves to blame when decades of publicity and public education still fails to stop people from littering in the streets and parks. But investigations by the maladministration watchdog reveal wider problems with the government mechanism of outsourcing cleaning services. From awarding contracts to monitoring performance, there is still much room for improvement. Last year, the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department issued more than 2,100 verbal and written warnings as well as some 1,100 “default notices” to trigger deduction of the monthly service charge because of a contractor’s bad performance. But the average deduction for each contractor was only HK$81,000, less than 0.1 per cent of the total contract value. The amount is hardly a deterrent. And when officials carried out routine performance inspection, it was mostly done during office hours. Despite a poor appraisal record – with scores below three out of 7.5 – operators still had their contracts renewed, according to the ombudsman’s report. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on street cleaning services each year. But the result still leaves much to be desired. This is also reflected in the complaints about street hygiene, which rose from 56,821 to 69,423 over the past five years. Even though the department does monitor black spots for illegal dumping, it does not keep tabs on places that draw more complaints. There is a clear difference between striving for excellence and doing the minimum. Regrettably, the current contract mechanism apparently encourages the latter. There is no incentive for service providers to do better after securing the contract. That is why the government is flooded with tens of thousands of complaints each year while the services do not seem to be value for money. With the Covid-19 epidemic still ravaging the city, poor hygiene is the last thing we need. The 10 recommendations put forward by the watchdog, such as reviewing the monitoring of contractor performance and using more advanced surveillance technology, will go a long way in making Hong Kong a cleaner and safer city.