Reflections on recent events, plus the occasional fact
free rant unfiltered by rational argument.
This month the Hong Kong Government gained control of the Eastern Harbour Tunnel. Commissioned in 1986 and opened in 1989, under the ‘build-operate-transfer’ model. The builders operated the tunnel for 30 years, gaining a profit from the tolls. With reversion to the government, an opportunity exists to harmonise tolls on harbour tunnels. All studies suggest this should help ease our chronic traffic congestion.
With 30 years to plan and a consensus for action in the community, the public anticipated movement. Instead, the minister responsible announced another study. A two-year delay on any decision, as he 'kicked the can down the road.'
As usual, the government resorted to consultants to do the job. Is this because our high paid and educated civil servants can't think for themselves?
In fact, the tunnel saga is indicative of a wider malaise in government. In a slow decline since 1997, inertia surfaces as the default response to any decision. And to achieve this slothfulness the civil service has evolved powerful tools of delay and obstinacy. Some would argue this is a defence mechanism in charged political environment.
My 35 years on the inside gave an insight into the games civil servants play. I'm convinced at secret courses, the Administrative Officer grade are taught these tactics.
The choice of bureaucratic tools at the disposal of the canny individual are wide. Furthermore, there careful application can give the appearance of action, whilst actually doing nothing. These tools applied alone or in a deadly combination can have great impact. Stalling, hampering and delaying the taking of a decision or implementation of a new idea, is now a Hong Kong civil service art form.
The simple meeting is the first line of defence. Scheduling, agreeing to agendas and coordinating the event can waste weeks. Then once in the meeting the real fun starts. Endless rounds of discussion and debate over minutia; the agreed definition of terms and such. Further meetings need arranging to resolve these faux issues.
Then pseudo disputes are manufactured over who has responsibility for issues. The law may need clarifying. Now, taking legal advice is guaranteed to burn up to six months. The submission needs writing, then approval before dispatching. Next, the counsel may need clarification on matters. When the advice comes back it needs careful consideration and deliberation. The advice is then presented. But don’t think that’s the end of the legal game. No. The other side will then seek their own advice from counsel, based on your submission. The whole circus spins on.
I was witness to this technique delaying progress on an issue for two years. The chairman of a committee, with considerable skill, batted legal advice around for years. Then he was gone on retirement, with no decision or action.
But the pièce de résistance in bureaucratic delay tactics is the appointment of consultants. This approach to challenging issues has many benefits to the wary civil servant. First, it is a time-consuming process. Drawn-out tendering and the selection of the consultant is the norm. Second, the consultant needs time to do the work. Third, the report appears, to be then debated at length. The appointment of consultants has the extra advantage of shielding the hapless civil servant. If there is an adverse reaction to the recommendations then the fault is deflected to the consultant. A win-win for the civil servant, at great cost to the public.
By the use of these tools, delays can be induced for years. Then, by the time a decision forms, if ever, those who initiated the process have left the stage. For the Hong Kong civil service this ‘kicking the can down the road’ is now the default action for dealing with controversial issues. Air pollution, traffic congestion, illegal structures ... are just a few of the issues floundering.
The fraught political environment, a lack of leadership and a malaise in the civil service all combine in a trinity of inertia. Civil servants in loud voices claim they are disenfranchised by the ministerial system. But, it's easy to play the victim instead of addressing the issues.
So drivers don’t expect any relief soon. With our government devoid of purpose or energy, initiatives flounder and sink in the bureaucratic sea. Cars and trucks will continue to line up at the central tunnel. Our air pollution will continue to rise with idling traffic. Meanwhile, our pampered officials twiddle their fingers awaiting the findings of the consultants.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.