Time to draw the line under a politically biased civil service

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 May, 2012, 12:00am


All attention at the moment is focused on the proposal by the chief executive-elect, Leung Chun-ying, to spend HK$72million per year to provide for four new minister-level posts and their support staff. Given the controversy over the justification and cost, it is natural for it to grab headlines.

But lurking under the surface is another related matter, arguably every bit as important and urgent.

By the time we have direct elections in 2017, it is essential that we separate the distinct role of political appointees from that of civil servants. In other words, we must create the politically neutral civil service we claim to already have, and put in place the structures and procedures to ensure the system can endure future changes of government.

The accountability system is already 10 years old, but relatively little has been done to make it function properly. The plain fact is what we have now is a mess. Far too many senior civil servants see a ministerial position as a promotion post which they can reasonably aspire to as the climax of their career. And far too many ministers fail to realise that they are responsible not just for making policy decisions, but are also politically accountable for the outcome of those decisions.

The first step should be to separate civil servants - in particular the members of the Administrative Service - from all political activity. They should no longer lobby legislators to support government policies or proposals. This should be the exclusive responsibility of policy secretaries, undersecretaries and political assistants. Civil servants could continue to attend Legislative Council panel meetings, but only in support of the political appointees and not to speak on their behalf.

Similarly, in dealing with the media and attendance at public forums, the public face and voice of the government should be the political appointee, not the civil servant. Far too often at present, the voice defending a particular decision belongs to a civil servant.

What credibility will that person have if the decision is reversed by a new administration?

To ensure that civil servants do not compromise their political neutrality, or give the impression that they might be, former directorate officers should be banned from taking up any political appointment for at least three years after retirement.

Ministers have a duty to consider whether the civil service has the capability and resources to execute a particular policy before making the political decision. For this reason, they remain politically accountable even if the policy failed partly because of poor execution.

Once the fundamental decision has been taken to clearly demarcate the different roles, a number of consequences flow. It follows, for example, that the head of the civil service should be a civil servant and not a political appointee. This person should be responsible for all line management matters including promotions and succession planning.

The post of secretary for the civil service can be abolished: policy responsibility for civil service matters can rest with the chief secretary or his deputy.

Since the head of the civil service is a civil servant, he would remain in place when a new chief executive is elected and could be responsible for providing support to the incoming chief executive-elect.

Another consequence would be the treatment of civil service advice. The role of civil servants is to give honest, evidence-based, impartial advice to political appointees. This advice should remain confidential.

The ministers make the final decision and accept political responsibility for the outcome. They should also be responsible for drawing up the strategy for securing support for the decision from Legco and the wider community.

The TV series Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister are comedies. But the matters which they raise have serious implications for Hong Kong's future, irrespective of how many ministers we have. They call for changes to long-established practices and mindsets. The sooner we get to grips with them, the better.

Mike Rowse is the search director of Stanton Chase International and an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. mike@rowse.com.hk


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