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Innovative policy entertains public complaints
(China Daily)
Updated: 2004-03-01 08:29

Ou Weidong, an official at the Statistics Bureau of Guangdong Province, has recently been promoted to the level of deputy director - but before he settles into his new office, he will take a detour.

Ou has been posted to the government's Bureau for Complaints for a three-month stint along with nine other newly-promoted officials as part of an innovative new policy.

The 10 officials have been assigned to the complaints bureau from February 16 to work as supervisors dealing with public complaints filed by mail, phone, or personal visits.

In China, complaint-lodging is called xinfang, literally letters sent, and visits made, to the authorities.

On February 8, Guangdong decided that newly-appointed officials of deputy-director level will work as supervisors at the Bureau for Complaints for three months to strengthen the bureau and handle complaints lodged against governments at various levels in the province. Supervisors are required to meet visitors from the public and assist in the investigation of important cases arising from the complaints.

Learning from complaints

"I am going to handle specific cases individually after studying the working rules for a week," says Ou.

Ou's first week will be spent perusing the concept of "four 80-per-cents," known as the bible of the bureau.

First, 80 per cent of the appeals are reasonable; second, 80 per cent of the cases can be settled if sufficient attention is paid; third, in 80 per cent of the cases, problems are usually intensified because the local government did not take the right approach in the first place; and finally, 80 per cent of the cases reflect the most serious concerns of society.

After one-and-half months, Ou and fellow supervisors will be dispatched to the places where their cases originate to handle them alone.

But two of Ou's colleagues clearly did not want to wait that long - Zheng Renhao from the Guangdong Provincial Civil Affairs Administration, and Zheng Hong from the Guangdong People's Congress Standing Committee, have started their investigation trips only four days after they joined the bureau.

One went to Zhanjiang, and the other to Wuchuan, says Zuo Mengxin, an official with the organization department at the provincial committee of the Communist Party of China.

Li Hongjun, one of the first batch of supervisors, a deputy director from the General Office of the Guangdong Provincial People's Government, tells China Daily that the system allows for a better understanding of the people lodging complaints.

"Xinfang reflects the increasing awareness of law among people. Generally speaking, more advanced regions produce more complaint letters and calls," he says, "which, in turn, helps gather experience in problem-solving."

"Being considerate to the people who lodge complaints is the first lesson we learn here," he adds.

"The experience will give these officials first-hand information about different aspects of the society," says Zuo, adding that the officials' performance during the three months will be counted for future promotion.

After Ou's group finishes their three months, another group of 10 will take their positions.

Sources close to the organization department say another five deputy directors are being considered to be added to the supervisors' list; and the current three-month secondment would most probably be extended to six months or even one year.

Supportive voices

"It's an innovative policy," says Guo Xiaocong, a professor with the School of Government at Guangzhou-based Sun Yat-Sen University.

"Xinfang is a reliable channel to reflect the problems of grassroots society to both the government and the Party; and serves a bridge between policy-makers and common people," Guo says.

The new regulation provides supervisors an opportunity to have a good knowledge of social problems in a short period, which, in turn, will be of help in policy-making.

Handling complaints every day would help the officials feel the pressure of governance, and enhance social responsibility, Guo says.

He suggests that all high-ranking officials in the province also be encouraged to attend the programme.

"If more officials have the experience of dealing with complaints, things will be better," Guo proposes.

"It demonstrates the government's commitment to solving social problems," says Wu Qinghua, an expert on human resource research at Sun Yat-sen University.

However, he thinks that three months is too short to sharpen these officials' ability in dealing with problems involving people's livelihood.

While applauding the new policy, Wu says that the ultimate way to deal with the public's complaints should be the setting up of an allied dynamic mechanism, with the complaints bureau as the core complemented by other functional sectors.

Last year, complaints to the provincial xinfang bureau were far disproportionate with settled cases - it received 8,584 letters and 12,670 visits. Among the issues raised, labour disputes ranked first, with 7.8 per cent complaining about employers' failure to pay salaries, medical insurance or pension. Next was issue arising from land requisitions, while the third was of difficulties in executing court orders.

Chen Ruihua, a professor at the Law School at Peking University, attributes the huge number of complaints at the provincial level partly to the low efficiency at local offices.

"They, some time, push up small disputes, which can be easily solved by the local government, to higher authorities," Chen is quoted as saying by Guangzhou-based 21st Century Business Herald.

Wu also notes the lack of involvement of NGOs (non-government organizations) in addressing social concerns.

However, a maturing xinfang mechanism could alleviate social pressure.

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