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  • Apr 18, 2014
  • Updated: 3:42am

Our mighty civil service machine needs rewiring

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 May, 2012, 12:00am

As speculation mounts over who will or will not join the new Leung Chun-ying administration, the more basic and infinitely more intractable problem of changing the culture of the civil service has yet to be faced.

The Tsang administration not only did not bother itself with this issue but all indications are that it never occurred to the lifelong bureaucrat Donald Tsang Yam-kuen that there was a problem. His predecessor, Tung Chee-hwa, made some tentative forays into this area but was more interested in hoarding power in his office.

Leung, on the other hand, has experienced the frustrations of dealing with the civil service and, in the chief executive election, seen the way in which its senior officers worked on his opponent's behalf. So he owes them no debts of gratitude and should, at least in theory, be able to bring new thinking to these problems.

First up among the problems is the unusually powerful nature of the Hong Kong civil service that exercises both executive and administrative functions. The fact that some of those holding executive office acquired new labels on their appointment as political officers did nothing to alter mindsets acquired in a lifetime of being bureaucrats.

Secondly, there is a degree of insularity and resistance to change in this bureaucracy that is not unique but impressively tenacious. Most civil servants have known no other career and their prospects of promotion are largely determined by length of service and a record of conformity. Individual thinking is not highly regarded and the bureaucrats quickly close ranks when outsiders join them.

Thirdly, hubris is a hallmark of this institution. It recruits its elite cadre fresh out of university, largely on the basis of examination results. As the recruits have no other work experience, this normal criteria for employment cannot be considered and anyone arriving for an interview declaring an interest in change will probably be shown the door. Those who remain join a self-satisfied group of people who shower honours and promotions on themselves.

Fourthly, if any of the above is explained to these bureaucrats, the likelihood is that they will see this as an illustration of misunderstanding by those who simply do not appreciate how things work.

Challenging the rule of administrative officers is not a task for the faint-hearted. However, the increasing dysfunctionality of the civil service can no longer be ignored. It is no coincidence that the Tsang administration, run by the bureaucrat's bureaucrat, has brought matters to a head. His administration became infamous for deeming no decision too big to be deferred and for its resistance to ideas from outside the ranks of the civil service.

Meanwhile, away from the bureaucracy's shiny new and rather ugly headquarters, the people of Hong Kong rarely experience encounters with civil servants that are helpful.

My experience running a number of businesses in Asia's supposedly most business-friendly city is that we spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with bureaucrats. Moreover, in almost all these dealings, we are treated as supplicants and, just to give a small example, we almost always find that we are summoned to their offices. Few of these so-called public servants even think of the notion that it might be more convenient if they come to our premises.

The whole ethos of the service is one of searching for problems to fulfil quotas, either laid down or informally operating. The words: 'How can I help?' seem to have been expunged from their vocabulary.

It is not necessary to go to the lengths currently fashionable in the US Republican Party, where all forms of government are regarded as the enemy - however, the way the bureaucracy works encourages this mindset.

One sure way of upsetting this mighty machine is to name an outsider as the new secretary for the civil service. This would create outrage in the ranks but it would bring desperately needed new thinking to the role.

The likelihood of this happening is slightly less than the prospect of snow in Hong Kong in the middle of August.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur



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