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Public officials need to become more engaged

Update: September, 04/2013 - 10:40

by Minh Thi

HA NOI (VNS)  — A National Assembly (NA) deputy last week raised a popular new idea for an addition to the draft Law on Reception of Citizens which has received enormous public support.

Nguyen Ba Thuyen, a legislator from Central Highlands Lam Dong Province, spoke at a meeting of the NA's Legal Committee last Thursday in HCM City. His idea is introducing a regulation forcing public officials to answer phone calls from citizens.

"Public officials must respond to calls from members of the public, even if only to be reprimanded by them," he commented.

According to Thuyen, even though officials are reimbursed every month for telephone charges, they still ignore calls from citizens – a shortcoming which is unacceptable in his view.

He explained that he had received numerous complaints from people angry that their calls were never answered. He claimed that a large number of public officials never answer calls from unknown telephone numbers, many of which are made by reporters.

For my part, I have experienced exactly this as both a citizen and a reporter.

A few weeks ago, I made a call to a local State agency, only to be lambasted for making the call at 11:15am.

The receiver only answered me after several failed attempts and then complained it was too late to make a call at such an hour. When I protested that it was still within the listed office hours and asked to be connected with the person in charge, she simply hung up on me.

Last Tuesday, many people flocked outside the headquarters of the People's Committee of northern Hai Phong City with files of complaints in their hands, according to the Xay dung (Construction) newspaper.

They were there following the screening of a locally televised advert that promised the Chairman of the City People's Committee, Duong Anh Dien, would meet with citizens directly at the committee's headquarters at that time.

And so the citizens came. They did not, however, catch any sight of the elusive chairman for the whole morning, leaving them feeling frustrated and deceived. They were merely informed that the committee's leaders were too busy to meet them.

The Xay dung newspaper reported that most of the people were present to ask for solutions in disputes over their land use rights.

This is certainly not the first time the media have reported a case of citizens being refused contact with public officials.

In February this year, a woman living in HCM City resorted to seeking help from Thanh Nien newspaper after being robbed of her jewellery by a group of thugs. The woman had initially gone to speak to the local police in District 12's Tan Thoi Nhat Ward, only to be advised to leave.

The investigation into the theft only began after the newspaper's reporters went to meet the deputy head of the District 12's Police Department seeking an explanation.

It seems that public trust in the officials tasked with fighting for our best interests is worryingly low.

Nguyen Thu Huong, a resident of Ha Noi's Hong Mai District told me that while she supports Thuyen's proposal, she doubts that such a regulation, if ever issued, would work well.

"The problem is public officials' attitudes. Sometimes State agencies do answer their phone calls, but nine times out of ten they dodge the issue by saying ‘this is not our responsibility, you need to ask a different department.' They very rarely actually try to help."

Huong cited an instance where she phoned a State-owned transport company asking to track the location of belongings she had lost during a bus trip, only to be told in reply that "this is not my responsibility."

She added that she once had an expensive mobile phone stolen but never reported it to local police because of her lack of trust in State agencies.

"Perhaps I would contact them if I lost a really large sum of money or a motorbike, maybe," she said drily.

Her opinion is shared by Trinh Ngoc Thach, an NA deputy from Ha Noi who, when debating the new law, said the only thing that matters is that public officials have good will when dealing with citizens.

Thach complained that the draft law is unhelpfully vague, as it merely states that those responsible for meeting citizens should be "competent," and are "prohibited from showing irresponsibility" when meeting the public.

"What does the law mean by "competent?" he asked. "What specific skills are being referred to? What does "irresponsibility mean in this case?"

Thuyen conceded the problems with the draft law, but still stressed its importance, especially once legally binding.

He said that by answering telephone calls, public officials could better deal with cases that they would have otherwise been oblivious to.

"When I worked as head of the People's Procuracy of Lam Dong Province, I once received a phone call from a citizen who informed me of the whereabouts of a wanted man. I then called the police and the man was instantly caught."

In my opinion, as public officials are paid to help the public (why else are they called "civil servants"?), they should try harder to do their jobs properly.

Even if an official is not directly responsible for a certain problem, they need to help citizens contact those in charge so that their problems can soon be dealt with.

Answering a phone call is a simple deed, but it brings public officials one step closer to us and can help solve big problems in a simpler way. Surely, that is not too much to ask? — VNS



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