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Guarding the truth

Published on Friday, 24 Feb 2012
Tommy WongB
Chief investigation officer, Office of the Ombudsman
Photo: Jonathan Wong

The Office of the Ombudsman is an independent watchdog between the public and the government administration. It was established in 1989 with the aim of investigating complaints about the administration, a job that requires keen analytical and communication skills, says Tommy Wong, chief investigation officer, who has worked there for the past 10 years.

"Our function is to investigate matters of maladministration in connection with actions taken by the government or 23 [government-related] organisations," says Wong. "After the investigation, we might make recommendations for improving measures to be taken by the organisation. Our aim and purpose is to promote a fair and efficient public administration."

The Ombudsman's decision is final - even Hong Kong's chief executive cannot interfere - but complainants can seek a review from the agency. As a final recourse, they can apply to the courts for a judicial review.

The Ombudsman's investigations are carried out in secret, but the resulting reports are published on its website, and annual reports are given to the chief executive and tabled in the Legislative Council. It is a fully open process, explains Wong.

The office receives about 5,000 complaints a year, half of which are screened out, mainly because of insufficient evidence of maladministration or because the area of complaint is outside the Ombudsman's jurisdiction. Of the remaining 2,500 complaints, 70 per cent are resolved within three months, in line with the office's performance pledge.

Wong says they offer a lot of job satisfaction, though with about 40 investigation officers assisted by some 60 support staff, the former do have a heavy workload.

At times, officers also have to deal with complainants who behave unreasonably, says Wong. "A very small proportion is very unreasonable. Some of them even come up to our office, lie on the ground [inside our office] and refuse to go until nine or 10pm. It's very upsetting for the staff."

Situations such as these highlight the need for excellent communication skills among officers. Successful candidates also need to have a good command of spoken and written Chinese and English, and knowledge of Putonghua is an advantage.

Applicants must hold a degree, and have work experience in public administration.

The duties of all three officer levels are to investigate cases of alleged maladministration and perform frontline duties, including conducting complaint inquiries and site visits, examining and analysing information, preparing investigation reports, manning the enquiry counter, answering public queries and taking telephone complaints, and receiving complainants in person.

The basic salary for an assistant complaints officer is around HK$20,000 plus a monthly allowance of HK$1,900. Complaints officers receive HK$34,000 plus a HK$3,300 month allowance, while senior complaints officers are paid about HK$49,000 plus a monthly allowance of HK$8,500.

Candidates begin as assistant complaints officers and then rise to becoming chief complaints officers, heading investigation teams and supervising their work.

The Civil Servants Training Development Institute hone recruits, and officers also receive occasional training with counterpart groups overseas.

Sharply honed analytical skills are also essential because officers need to assess who is telling the truth, Wong adds.

"Investigations should verify the accuracy and evaluate the evidence, and then sort out relevant issues and facts in dispute," he says. "Just like a court, you have to decide."

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