Busted Flush

I wonder what people in other major cities like New York and London made of the announcement in the budget speech that Hong Kong would spend $600 million to improve conditions in 240 public toilets. Did they secretly hope their own governments would find the funds to undertake similar programmes? Or did they ask themselves what on earth people here were doing in our facilities that required expenditure of so much public money to put right?

It is hard to imagine senior officials of those other comparable business centres including in a major set piece policy speech a reference to improving ventilation, and enhancing cleanliness and hygiene in toilets. But we should give credit to Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po for facing up to an important issue, despite the risk of negative publicity. According to the Hong Kong Toilet Association (yes, there is one, and it is affiliated to the World Toilet Association no less) we have a serious problem. Too many of our public toilets – we have over 800 in all – are dirty, smelly and poorly maintained. People use them only when they are desperate, and for the minimum necessary time.

Contrast this with the spacious and luxurious facilities in some of our shopping malls and top hotels.

Part of the problem stems from poor design. We need to build toilets that are easier to clean, for example, with no sharp edges or hard to reach corners. The cubicles need floor to ceiling separation and individual extractor fans, not half screens and reliance on a single large fan to ventilate the whole facility. Water taps and soap dispensers should be automatic, paper towels are better for drying hands than powered warm air devices.

Most of these things our engineers, architects and other professionals know already and anything we are not sure of we can seek advice from our friends in Singapore who apparently do this kind of thing rather well.

But however good the initial design and equipment installed on commissioning, ultimate success will depend on management. It is here that we let ourselves down at present most seriously. The best run private toilets all have in common two things: an absolute commitment from senior management, and a system where transparency and accountability are paramount.

The attendant is present on the premises. He wears a uniform, his name and photograph are prominently displayed on the wall. He is provided with gloves and an apron, plus all the other equipment he might need to do a good job such as mops, brooms and proper cloths for cleaning. He has authority to summon relevant crew to amend or replace any malfunctioning equipment. A representative of senior management visits several times a day to check on the state of the facility and staff wellbeing.

Government practice is not to manage public toilets itself, but rather to contract out responsibility after a competitive tender exercise. So all the toilets in a set geographic area for a given period of time are maintained by the winning contractor. Though no doubt in theory an attempt is made to judge quality of service at the tender assessment stage, based on reports of past performance, in practice the key factor is price.

Instead of an incentive to do a good job, the contractor will try to do the minimum necessary so as not to be terminated, at the lowest possible cost. The outcome is a workforce of minimum wage staff, poorly equipped and skimpily supervised. If there is an attendant, he is more likely to be standing around outside rather than inside, which given the poor state of the premises (wet floor, obnoxious odours etc) is understandable. He rarely sees his boss, and almost never the government official responsible for that area. Action at manager level is only in response to complaints.

The Association reports cases where staff are not even provided with gloves and aprons, let alone uniforms. They have to work in their own clothes and bring their own gloves.

To achieve the standard of public toilets we want, the government will either have to take back the management of them in house or, if it wants to continue to outsource, adopt radically different contracts. Imagine a situation where a plaque at the entrance of the public toilet names the contractor responsible, has the name and photograph of the attendant, the name and contact number of his supervisor and the name and contact number of the Food and Environment Hygiene Department official responsible for that district. The contract would specify the materials that had to be provided to the attendant. The contractor could be made responsible for minor repairs (replacement lightbulb or washer for the tap). For major repairs, if these are to remain the responsibility of the government then procedures have to be put in place whereby the department’s term contractor for such works can be mobilised quickly.

The last piece of the jigsaw is public education. The government needs to engender respect for public facilities. Patrons tend to respond according to the standard of the facility so this should become easier to achieve in the newly refurbished toilets. But if some users need more toilet training – forgetting to flush or dumping paper towels on the floor – then they should be taken to task on the spot.

But the key to success or failure of the improvement exercise will be good management which will cost more. If we get that right then it will be money well spent. But if we do not address the management issue, it will be $600 million down the drain.