Semen stains and the rules
It's 1986. I'm introduced to an esoteric side of the Royal Hong Kong Police. Sent on a short attachment to Management Services Wing, I’m given a project. This unit, a forerunner to Service Quality Wing, is laying the foundation for organisational change.
That work will gather pace throughout the late 80s and into the 90s. As society transforms a middle-class emerges, and public demands of the police alter. There is a recognition that policing needs to evolve.
My first day in MSW doesn't go well. The new boss informs me;
“I want you to find out how many unnecessary pieces of paper are flying around in the organisation.”
“Most of it is unnecessary” My reply fell on deaf ears.
Never a great one for administration, I'm not thrilled with this role. After a couple of days, we agree to hone the task down. I'm to look at the duplication and submission of returns.
In simple language, a return is information submitted on a regular basis. This can be statistical or narrative. This is the data that generates the tables of statistics the government trots out. I’m told the number of returns has grown to create an administrative burden.
This is the era before computers. The process of gathering information is by memorandum passing through the organisation. In other words, bits of paper move from place to place.
The ‘Manual of Office Practice’ dictates the process. If nothing else it’s impressive to witness the byzantine thoroughness. The size of fonts, paragraph lengths, file numbering and the delights of minute-sheets are all there.
The system works well. Once briefed, staff go about the task earnestly and relentlessly. The data is gathered, typed up and dispatched; its conveyed to headquarters. Yet, over time things can go astray. Some of the information that is moving around is no longer needed, or duplication is taking place.
My task over the next five months is to try to get a handle on the situation. Then recommend returns that can be cut. It's not a job I relished. At least it's regular hours.
To illustrate what’s gone astray, let us consider the monthly return from CID on obnoxious exhibits. In the past, someone had complained about handling exhibits soiled with blood or semen or similar. It's not a pleasant task. Staff are reluctant to undertake the role.
In typical fashion, a committee forms to examine paying an allowance for the role. To understand the scale of the issue, they’ve asked for monthly submissions on obnoxious exhibits. But that's years ago.
My research took me from frontline CID units, up the administrative tree to a filing cabinet. Each month the process, with flawless execution, delivers statistics to filing at headquarters. CID units gathered the information, then submitted returns to the regional offices.
In turn, the regions merge the information to send it on. In police headquarters, Ms Julie Tan files the returns away. A seamless exercise in office practice that keeps people employed.
In a single cabinet, the information sat. No one asked to see it. No one questioned its value.
This had gone on for over eight years. With diligence, Ms Tan filed the data away, chasing up those who missed a return. For three years she'd done the job in line with the briefing from her predecessor.
It’s the same throughout the entire chain of the process. Officers informed by former post-holders kept the system running. Except for one crucial point. The committee examining the issue no longer existed. Plus, someone neglected to cancel the return. Meanwhile, the bureaucratic leviathan trundled along. Unopposed by time, changes in personal and the absolute need for it to survive.
The obnoxious property saga was one of many. It's intriguing that some folks reacted with grunts of indignation when told to cull returns. As if sustaining the beast took precedence over everything. It's an anathema to them to change without a struggle.
They required convincing that the information was not needed in the future. This bureaucratic inertia proved a constant unshakable throughout my career.
There's a particular type of administrator who took delight in citing arcane regulations. These guys turned the delaying of decisions and obstruction into an art form. It’s a game you had to learn to play.
Only by rules on the creation and submission of returns, did the situation improve. A ranking officer needed to sanction the return, plus its continuance. By using someone senior, we held back the production of unnecessary returns.
My five months in MSW taught me that to operate in the system, I needed to know the rules. Archaic, but functioning, sets of regulations and procedures dictated how the organisation worked.
Civil Service Regulations would be my reading material for the months ahead. Armed with that knowledge, I’d be ready to defend my corner.
In October 1986, I said farewell to MSW. Awaiting me is a posting in Emergency Unit Kowloon East. That's more like it.