SCMP Sunday, May 28, 2000

First-class failures


With her head held low, beleaguered housing chief Rosanna Wong Yick-ming now faces the most difficult challenge of her political career. Calls for her resignation flooded a Radio Television Hong Kong phone-in programme on Friday, a day after the release of a report on a piling scandal at a public housing site under the Housing Authority's control.

One angry caller even suggested the Government buy a house each for Ms Wong and Director of Housing Tony Miller, in an effort to push them into taking early retirement.

Although Ms Wong and Mr Miller escaped criticism in the report compiled by a panel headed by former HSBC chairman John Strickland, many people insisted the pair should bear more than merely moral responsibility for the scandal.

They are far from convinced with the defence put up by Ms Wong and Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa that this executive-led investigation followed by proposals for remedial action are the best way to demonstrate accountability.

While defending the commitment and resolve of Ms Wong to streamline the structure of the Housing Department - the government body that serves as the authority's executive arm - some of her Executive Council colleagues hinted that construction professionals should also be blamed.

Two days before the publication of the panel report, Exco member Henry Tang Ying-yen lashed out at the quality of the local construction industry, saying it was way below first-class standards. Safety records at local construction sites, he said, were "shameful".

Playing a central role in the success story of Hong Kong's public housing history, the trouble for the statutory body on housing is that its failures have also been first-class.

In the past 18 months, piling and foundation scandals have been uncovered on at least 11 authority sites, including Tin Shui Wai, Ho Man Tin, and Sha Tin. In the case of Tin Chung Court in Tin Shui Wai, the authority paid $350 million in compensation to buyers. In the latest case, in Yuan Chau Kok, Sha Tin, two of the blocks had to be demolished, at a cost of $250 million.

The report into the scam, in which only three of 36 piles beneath two housing blocks met the required standard, pointed the finger at 10 junior and middle-ranking Housing Department staff, while senior officials were cleared of blame.

Ms Wong should resign, said Hong Kong People's Council on Housing Policy chief secretary Virginia Ip Chiu-ping. "The report is apparently a whitewash. There is no point catching a few small potatoes but letting those big fish go free.

"Every time, we have a report pointing out some 'system problem', as if the system was created by God and can operate on its own under natural law."

She demanded a revamp of the authority to allow elected public representatives to sit on it. "The members are supposed to monitor and lead the department. If they fail to do the job well, they should all be fired."

Ho Hei-wah, an authority home-ownership scheme committee member, admitted they did not have enough control over the department's operations. "We can only discuss what the officers have prepared in their papers. And most of the time, officers refused to give more information. We raised concerns and they said, 'All right, your concerns are noted'."

Social affairs observer, Dr Li Pang-kwong, of Lingnan University, believes a "chief executive officer" model and full-time paid members should help improve the system.

"Currently, we appoint experts and professionals to the authority. They are busy people. We should introduce a full-time system whereby members and the chairman are paid and given a mission to accomplish. Failure to do the job well would result in sacking. It can also help clear up the blurring of responsibility."

Professor Mok Ka-ho, of City University, shares a similar view. "Part-time members do not have enough time to take care of so many policies, and for most of the time they have to rely on the department staff to help them make policy."

Staff unionists complained it was unfair for the report into the latest scandal to name the staff involved before they had been given a chance to defend themselves.

The Housing Department Alliance of Staff Unions said frontline staff should not be blamed. A spokesman said: "There are only bad generals, no bad soldiers. We have an oversized management, but our current reform aims at getting rid of the low-level staff. That is why the problem cannot be uprooted."

In its finding, the investigation panel highlighted several defects in the so-called "Housing Department culture". These included each staff member focusing only on their own area of responsibility and so missing the broader picture and any gaps between their responsibilities and those of others. It noted how staff directly responsible for construction quality spend most of their time at their desks in the department's headquarters. And it commented critically on how the usual reaction to a problem was to add a new instruction to a procedure manual or to recruit additional staff, rather than stand back and considering whether the excessive number of rules and procedures may itself be part of the problem.

An authority source said this work culture was so embedded that it would take some time to alter. "I'm not too pessimistic. Over the past nine months, we have discussed a lot with staff. It's not the case that they don't want to change or they feel they have done nothing wrong.

"The problem is that the Housing Department is so big that it's difficult to manage. Some of its work will have to be privatised. And of course, we have to change our structure and system. We will also have to tell the construction industry that it can't totally rely on our supervision. And it's no use trading blame against each other."

A Housing Department source said: "The incident has exposed the problem of culture at three levels: the construction industry, the Housing Department and work sites. But, like a car that is running, you can't just stop it to repair the engine."

Apart from this decline in professionalism and deep-seated anomalies in the practices of the construction sector, the system failures and cultural problems within the authority's executive arm reflect a more fundamental problem: lack of accountability at all levels.

The system does not encourage staff to take responsibility nor, more importantly, does it nurture a culture of accountability. Rather, it is designed and developed in order to blur responsibility when trouble occurs and provide escape routes for staff to avoid punishment.

The piling scandal is hardly an isolated incident under the executive-led Government. Nor is Ms Wong the first head of an executive branch - and probably not the last - who has been asked, or will be asked, to step down and take responsibility for certain failures.

So it is no surprise that the Chief Executive stood firmly behind Ms Wong, who symbolises the housing policy executive arm and the whole executive-led system. The consequence, though, is that the community is increasingly feeling that the administration is insensitive to their aspirations for a more accountable government.

If the leadership is seen to shirk and shift responsibility time and again, any effort to change the culture at all levels of the Government will fail.

Chris Yeung ( is the Post's Political Editor. Ng Kang-chung is a staff writer on the Post's political desk.