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Joint Office

Those in the government long enough would know the meaning of a joint office. It is meant to deal with matters which no one department is responsible for; thus a joint office is set up comprising staff of more than one department. It does not change the subject matters. They are still things which no one department is responsible for, or more plainly: no one is fully responsible. Worse still, a joint office could be the place where different groups of civil servant shed their responsibility. Instead of jointly responsible, they each have a reasonable excuse of not to be responsible.

This typical bureaucratic practice is fully illustrated in the investigation report on water seepage problem published by the Ombudsman today. I heard the plan of setting up the joint office a few years ago and the background of the problem. At the beginning, EO were involved because HAD was one of the parties in the team owing to liaison work with private building management committees. HAD was very clever in not participating in the joint office owing to ignorance of technical matters. Actually the problem is not technical because the disputes are mainly between neighbours refusing to co-operate when the source of seepage could not be identified without entering private premises and knocking down some walls.

Water seepage is a building maintenance issue in private properties. The government is dragged in and becomes a target of criticism because sometimes, but often not necessarily, the seepage could become a public nuisance, create building structural damage, or waste potable water. Major problems such as bursting of water pipes or drainage pipes would be quickly looked at by the premises owners. Only minor problems such as stained walls or minor cracks, which might not fall into the control of government, would blow up into complaints to Ombudsman. However, my sympathy does not go to the departments. A loosely made joint office is an example of the wrong side of bureaucracy. This is a good research subject of management science on team work and group dynamic.