Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Tree Office

The Chief Secretary proudly presented the Report of the Task Force on Tree Management in June. It has a sub-title People, Trees, Harmony. First, the basic. We are all aware that the task force is a bureaucratic response to several tragic incidents of tree collapses, leading to the death of a girl in Stanley, right in the middle of a busy street. There was a public outcry that the government is accountable because tree safety is her responsibility. It is well expected that the standard response of the bureaucrats is the setting up of a group to find a way to improve, using collective responsibility. This high-power task force led by the Chief Secretary comprises representatives of four bureaux and ten departments. However, it is actually the brainchild of the Development Bureau. Its terms of reference is mainly on the risk of trees, plus the supporting role of government organization structure and resources. The report can be read from the website of the Development Bureau.

I must admit it is a beautifully written report. I am especially impressed by the flowery description on our love of trees, how they benefit the environment and how they should be preserved. We all know that our mothers are women. The public has no question about that. Their concern is on safety, both people and trees.

The Task Force aptly identified the problem. There are many departments each responsible for trees under their purview. The demarcation is simple: Leisure and Cultural Services Department is responsible for trees in parks and roadside landscaped areas, Highway Department for expressways and slopes assigned to it, Housing Department for public housing estates, Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department for country parks, other departments for lands allocated to them, and Lands Department for unallocated land. The problem is said to be a lack of co-ordination among them.

As a result, the Task Force recommends the setting up of a new Tree Management Office within the Development Bureau. As such, the bureau will expand by having twenty one more officers including one directorate level two officer, two directorate level one officers, six assistant secretary level officers, two Senior Executive Officers and two Executive Officers II. As for departments, they will remain status quo except Lands Department where a tree unit may be set up.

We will see the bureaucracy grows as a result. The threat of government negligence has been turned into an opportunity for growth. This is a good illustration of the Peter Principle at work. As for the fundamental concern of the danger to the public from tree collapses, it still remains status quo. The new tree office in the bureau has a higher purpose. It looks after policy, standard, and committee work on greening, landscaping and liaises with department on tree management. After all the fuss, I do not see how the public are better protected from the collapse of trees.

To effectively improve the situation and avoid the danger, a better solution is the Occam's Razor principle: To deal with the obvious problem with the simplest approach. As I see it, to remove the danger to the public from tree collapses, there are three steps: First, a diligent surveillance of the condition of trees in close proximity to the public; Second, ability to diagnose and cure sick trees, and Third, removal of trees which are in danger of collapsing.

For the first step, departments have been doing it for a long time. It does not require specialized skills. Common sense and basic training will enable an ordinary person to distinguish a sick tree. It is just a matter of the awareness and diligence of departmental front-line staff in watching out for sick trees as a small part of their regular duties.

For the second step, it is a shame to admit that the government does not have professionals in arboriculture. There are Forestry Officers who are scientists in botany. There are also skilled plant technicians in the government plant nurseries in the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, and the Leisure and Cultural Services Department. Most sick trees can be handled by the departments, and not many of them are within striking distance to the public. For special cases, the help of the academic sector can be sought. It is better for the professionals in the field to advise on the health of trees, rather than one sitting in the office of the bureau.

For the third step, it is even simpler. While the two departments above have tree cutting teams, most departments use contractors for the removal of trees. It is just a matter of timely decisions and swift actions.

The tree office in the bureau is unnecessary.

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