The buck stops WHERE?

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 June, 2012, 12:00am


A decade ago, chief executive Tung Chee-hwa created Hong Kong's first cabinet of ministers with a pledge to introduce a more open and enlightened government, one that would be more accountable.

Tung said his 'Principal Officials Accountability System' would mean all principal officials - mostly secretaries of departments and policy bureaus - would be political appointments made by the chief executive, rather than recruits taken from the ranks of politically neutral career civil servants.

He called the first batch of officials to serve under this ministerial system his 'best team', and said these ministers would be held accountable - to himself, rather than an electorate - for the decisions they made. This arrangement would ensure their sensitivity to policy-making, as their jobs would depend on it.

Over the past 10 years the system achieved some results, with three ministers who served under it being obliged to resign. But the public has also had to learn a new meaning for the word 'accountability', which has since been taken to refer to officials assessing their own performance, rather than making him or her answerable to those whom they were supposed to serve - the people of Hong Kong.

'Throughout the years, citizens often mention 'accountability' when weighing up an official's performance. But an accountability system without party politics prevents the chief executive from forming a unified team,' according to Ivan Choy Chi-keung, a political scientist at Chinese University who has been studying the system since it was established on July 1, 2002.

'An accountability system without a mandate [from an electorate] tears the ministers and the civil servants apart,' Choy said.

The system, which Tung called 'the dawning of a new era in governance', has cost taxpayers over HK$500 million since 2002, with the number of ministers expanded from 11 to 12 under Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's administration.

This may now rise further, to 14, under changes being sought by chief executive-elect Leung Chun-ying. Leung had hoped lawmakers would approve his plans before he takes office on July 1, but this is now unlikely after a request to discuss the revamp as a matter of priority was rejected by Legco yesterday.

In May 2008, Tsang added two more tiers of government when he introduced his so-called political appointments system, under which eight undersecretaries and nine political assistants were appointed at salaries of around HK$200,000 and HK$140,000 a month each respectively.

Leung is now seeking to add another tier - a deputy each for the chief secretary and financial secretary.

Critics have been calling for a comprehensive review of the entire system, especially after Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Raymond Tam Chi-yuen last month proposed ministers should get an 8.1 per cent pay rise. Public pressure saw the proposal shelved on June 5.

One of the first ministers to be appointed under Tung's system said that, initially, it had worked well.

'The accountability system was like every other ministerial system and it worked until the turning point when it was expanded [in 2008] and people lost their accountability,' said Joseph Wong Wing-ping, the first civil service minister.

The first two casualties under Tung's system were the financial secretary Antony Leung Kam-chung and secretary for security Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, who resigned in mid 2003. A year later, secretary for health and welfare Yeoh Eng-kiong resigned over the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, which killed 299 people in Hong Kong alone.

Ip said she had resigned to continue her academic studies, but her decision to leave came soon after 500,000 protesters took to the streets against her plans for a national security law. Now an elected lawmaker, she emphasised that her resignation was also intended to help Tung.

'One of the reasons I gave Mr Tung [for resigning] was, 'I would help you by leaving' ... so Mr Tung was not forced by the public to say 'how do you make your cabinet ministers accountable' ... He didn't want me to go.'

Antony Leung resigned amid public anger over his purchase of a Lexus motor vehicle - just before announcing an increase in car registration tax in his financial budget.

More than eight years after he stepped down, Yeoh is still the last minister to have left office as a result of accountability.

During those eight years, various political controversies have erupted that have led to public anger and calls for officials to resign, in vain.

Among those asked to step down was former constitutional and mainland affairs minister Stephen Lam Sui-lung, who was heavily criticised for his handling of controversial electoral reforms.

Despite repeated demands for his resignation and his being consistently ranked the least popular minister in opinion polls, he was promoted to chief secretary last year.

Now, outgoing Chief Executive Donald Tsang has faced down calls to step down over his dealings with tycoons and stays in luxury hotel suites at taxpayers' expense.

Where does this leave the 'accountability system'?

Regina Ip believes that it was introduced too quickly and the mechanism behind it was simply never there. She also believes some of the appointees proved to be fatal flaws.

'Before implementation, we had not thought through the whole concept,' she said this month. 'How do you implement accountability, how do you pick the right people, how do you ensure that the person once appointed can work well with the civil servants?'

As a former civil servant, she was opposed to suggestions of cutting pay to 'punish' government officials for mistakes. Instead, she believed the chief executive should take a more active role in ensuring members of his cabinet took responsibility for their decisions.

'We should do it the Western way - ultimately, 'the buck stops with the CE', it is up to him to decide how to deal with any culprit ... to force a minister to resign, or transfer to a lesser post, or you take the blame yourself.'

Taking responsibility is essential to the system, not only because it affects the government's credibility among the public but also within the administration.

In recent years, the principal officials have been criticised for passing the blame for any failures to civil servants, when they were supposed to instead shoulder public responsibility for the performance of various bureaus, allowing civil servants to keep the political neutrality required for a meritocratic and clean civil service.

Ivan Choy said Tung's system had failed to achieve its goal because ministers' appointments came without a mandate from the electorate.

'Hongkongers have been confident in administrative officers because these officers had received routinised, all-round training on running a government.

'It is hard to convince these [civil-service] elites how a person having worked for over a decade in a bank can head a bureau better than they can,' said Choy.

Some officials said the accountability system, under which civil servants can aspire only to permanent secretaries at most, had severely damaged morale in the service.

Leung Chau-ting, chairman of the Federation of Civil Service Unions, said: 'Civil servants' morale has been held back since the political appointment system came to place in 2002.'

He agreed with Ip that the design of the system itself was an 'original sin'. He said its aim to groom political talent from the private sector was a fundamental mistake. 'It is ridiculous for the government to pay such fat salaries to the appointees just to train them. The government is not a place for you to learn, it is for you to serve.'

One of Tsang's nine political assistants named in 2008 was Paul Chan Chi-yuen, 28 years old at the time of his appointment. He saw his monthly salary increase to about HK$130,000, four times what he was paid in his previous job as a researcher at City University. Chan's salary was comparable to that of a deputy secretary with 18 years' service.

The system's aim to create a pool of political talent has also been thrown into doubt, after it was reported that five out of nine incumbent political assistants will not keep their jobs in the next government.

This time, a drastic pay cut means newcomers can expect a maximum of HK$100,000 per month.

Despite their generous salaries, the appointees have been criticised for not showing up at public engagements. Most of them were strangers to the public, with zero recognition in public polls conducted by the University of Hong Kong. These polls were halted in 2010 when the university decided its resources could be better used.

Some political parties also reported a lack of engagement with undersecretaries and political assistants, who were supposed to lobby parties and pressure groups.

According to a performance count of political assistants in 2011 conducted by the Chief Executive's Office, the Development Bureau's political assistant Raymond Cheung Man-to attended the most meetings with district councils and professional bodies - 127. The Education Bureau's Jeremy Young Chit-on recorded the fewest - just eight.

If creating undersecretaries and political assistants has achieved anything, Ip suggested that it was only to expose a reality behind the failure of the accountability system: 'The fact is simply, we have a shortage of political talents.'

Although the system has been in place for a decade, Ip believed it would take time for the incoming chief executive to make the changes necessary to make it work.

'It marks a beginning, the creation of a political tier which is important for Hong Kong's future democratic development ... [but] it's a political experiment, and we have to acknowledge that, as we grope our way forwards, it has not been done before.'


Number of meetings with district councils and professional bodies attended by Education Bureau political assistant Jeremy Young last year