Greater transparency within government departments has changed public perception and expectations of the public service over the past years.
"Receiving merely nine complaints regarding a sizeable government project in a bustling commercial district was a real accomplishment for us," says Chan Kin-kwong, chief engineer, drainage projects division, Drainage Services Department.
The project in question was part of a flood alleviation scheme that involved the construction of 700-metre-long intercepting drains along Queen's Road Central, Lok Ku Road, and Gilman's Bazaar.
"In our experience, such large-scale works affect daily operations for many people and particularly shop owners and residents in the neighbourhood. This is why we usually set up various channels to deal with grievances," Mr Chan notes.
When embarking on the project in 2006, the department changed its usual modus operandi, introducing a new site culture with two objectives: to minimise nuisance to members of the public by prioritising their needs and interests, and to complete the work in the shortest time possible.
"We heard out affected parties before commencing work," says Vincent Chu, engineer, drainage projects division, Drainage Services Department. "Our frontline colleagues visited all the affected shop owners, who were anxious that the project would drive away customers during peak breakfast and lunch hours."
In light of these concerns, the department asked the contractor to adjust its daily work schedule to commence work after breakfast and stop before lunch.
Shop owners were also given a choice between three types of site fencing – transparent, semi-transparent and solid hoardings. The shop owners appreciated this flexibility and found that the measures minimised the impact on their businesses.
The department took the additional step of beautifying the site by means of murals and potted plants on the boundary hoardings, to create a greener environment on one hand and improve the usually unfavourable image of a construction area on the other.
At the early stage of the work, a two-day exhibition was held in Sheung Wan's Western Market to explain the background and objectives of the project. Another initiative was to increase communication and public participation by ensuring that people were kept up to date with the work progress, for example, by displaying project details on the boundary fencing.
Other means of communication included regular newsletters and leaflets and meetings with management companies. A 24-hour hotline was also installed, with the undertaking that relevant matters would be handled within two hours of complaints.
"This also helped to engage the neighbourhood, giving people a sense of ownership, not only of the area but also the work," Mr Chan stresses.
The department put in place a training programme to hone its frontline team's public relations and communication skills in following through the new approach. "Engineers took on an additional role as public relations officers. Aside from training, we also arranged monthly internal project reviews and sharing sessions," adds Keith Tam, senior engineer, drainage projects division, Drainage Services Department.
Mr Chan notes that the new site culture led to additional costs, but that this was well worth it. "The project was completed in 2008, two months ahead of plan, and the number of complaints went from 36 during the first year to nine in the second."
Mr Tam describes the outcome of the project as "a marvellous job". He adds, "We received 12 letters of appreciation from members of the society."
Following the successful implementation of its new culture of engagement, the Drainage Services Department participated in the Civil Service Bureau's Civil Service Outstanding Service Award Scheme this year, winning the Champion of a General Public Service Team Award.
"The competition involved a three-tier assessment, including two presentations and Q&A sessions," Mr Chan says, adding that the project team will share its frontline experience at the Hong Kong Management Association's annual conference this month and at a government management seminar organised by the Civil Service Bureau in December.
"By going that extra mile and committing to only the best service, we build infrastructure while creating a win-win situation for all," he concludes.
- Identify potential public concerns
- Engage affected parties, injecting a sense of ownership
- Inject flexibility into the work schedule
- Open up communication channels