If government departments in Hong Kong are to perform effectively, they must be subject to public scrutiny and expect that instances of maladministration are reported to the relevant authorities. In 2005 alone, the Office of the Ombudsman Hong Kong received a total of 4,266 complaints and 14,633 enquiries, and takes every one of them seriously.
"These numbers mean that there is room for improvement," says Kenny Tang, the office's senior investigation officer. The Ombudsman's mission, he explains, is to "bring about improvement in quality and standards and promote fairness in public administration via independent, objective and impartial investigation."
In Mr Tang's experience, facilitating change is never easy. Therefore, four investigation teams have been formed to deal with matters in the different departments. Another team handles self-initiated direct investigations not instigated by complaints.
"For cases involving complaints, we focus on the issues complained about," he says. "As for the self-initiated investigations, we aim to adjust matters of public administration so that the people involved take a different approach. In such instances, we will take a close look at the entire system instead of just investigating specific problems."
Whatever the circumstances, the role of the investigation officer is of paramount importance. "We depend on our judgement to decide the level of seriousness and the possible impact," Mr Tang says. "Each case is unique, so some may not require a full investigation, while others can take considerable time and effort."
Mr Tang works in the direct investigation team. His working day usually starts with reading the newspapers to spot any potential wrongdoing in areas of public administration. The main thing is to be very alert and never to turn a blind eye. If follow-up action is necessary, he will do preliminary research and decide whether to recommend an investigation.
This will usually entail conducting meetings or interviews with public officers, professionals, representatives of concern groups and members of the public. Where there have been complaints, the complainants, any witnesses, and those against whom the complaints are made may have to be interviewed.
"We may also seek expert advice and draw reference from overseas practices," Mr Tang says. "But the most challenging task is to come up with a rationale and to filter all the information that has been painstakingly collected. This takes skills and experience."
When a report is completed, the findings are publicised via the media. Explaining the contents requires a particular approach. It must succinctly convey the key points, without going into too much detail, so that the public can grasp the essence and the work does not go to waste.
When handling an investigation, each officer follows general guidelines and can seek advice from supervisors, but does most of the work independently. "You are entirely responsible for whatever your report may lead to," notes Mr Tang. "That can certainly cause stress, but it is a thrill to see improvements after all we've done."
In his opinion, perseverance is the most important quality for doing well in the role. It is also essential to be patient, methodical and able to make impartial judgements.
The language used in writing a report depends on what was used in making the original complaint. That is usually Chinese, but reports for self-initiated direct investigations are in English and all case summaries are written up in both languages.
Therefore, language proficiency and, in particular, precise usage is emphasised in staff training programmes. "Our reports are not just for internal circulation, so we must be able to explain things in layman's terms and make reports easy to digest," Mr Tang says. Besides that, officers without previous legal training are expected to take courses to give them sufficient background knowledge. "In order to make a point, we may need to refer to the related legislation," he adds.
Before joining the Ombudsman's office eight years ago, Mr Tang used to work in the private sector, but always hoped for a job in which he could serve the public and make a difference. Nowadays, he can apply his skills and knowledge to bettering society in Hong Kong, but is still surprised when he comes across certain types of maladministration.
"We hope that all government departments can be progressive and accountable," he says. "Due to our specific role as a watchdog, we will also need to keep improving and see to any potential problems because we can't afford to make mistakes."