Quick-fix wrong for civil service

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 July, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 July, 1997, 12:00am

If there is anything we can count on in Hong Kong, it is that we are blessed with a civil service that should be used to implement policy rather than be tampered with to serve a political agenda or enable a leader to stamp his or her personality on government.

Such a professional and motivated public sector has complemented our freewheeling economy and diligent workforce. No wonder China was so adamant about spelling out its faith in the civil service in the words of the Joint Declaration and, later, the Basic Law.

If ever calm should be imperative in the civil service, it is now when the 186,000-strong staff have just faced the most substantive change possible - the change of sovereignty.

For more than 150 years the British had as governors to Hong Kong diplomats and Sinologists who sensibly left the job of day-to-day administration to the civil service. The lone exception was the last Governor, a politician.

Now for the first time we have a chief executive whose background and frames of reference are in business. While having a steward with a wealth of experience in commerce is an advantage - because Hong Kong is, more than anything else, an international centre for commerce - and precedents of businessmen excelling in government are numerous, particularly in the United States (presidents George Bush and Herbert Hoover first gained prominence in business), the initial period of adjustment may be trying both for him and the civil service he commands.

Business tends to be results-oriented, whereas the civil service is process-oriented. A company is, by definition, concerned with profit and not particularly fastidious about the methods it employs to maximise it. A government, by contrast, is interested in both the outcome and the process because the public, unlike the company's customers and shareholders, is sensitive to the way decisions are reached and the reasons behind them.

What is more, the Hong Kong civil service is complex and colossal, like any huge bureaucracy. As such it has to be a stable institution and its response must be slow and deliberating, plodding yet purposeful.

Since government policies are mostly long term, they have extended gestation periods and their implementation is painstaking as the bureaucrats deal with all their ramifications as contingencies arise.

For many among the general public, the apparent tardiness with which the Government acts is frustrating and this is a source of constant friction between the civil service and its critics, who judge the administration on misplaced criteria more appropriate for the rough-and-ready business world.

With the SAR Government being so new, some will be sorely tempted to tinker with the machinery. But whoever contemplates civil service reform must err on the side of caution rather than haste because the stakes are so high.

The SAR regime has to be aware of the Government's intricate apparatus, including the unique civil service culture.

Substantive alteration to such an able civil service will take years. This glacial progress does not suit the fix-it-up, fix-it-fast mentality rife among management gurus and their disciples. A rushed restructuring, however, may end up marring, if not crippling, the system, with the direst of consequences.

The only sensible way forward is for the SAR not to revise a working formula but rather be patient, tactful and tolerant as it lets the system evolve at a natural pace commensurate with the community's needs.

To repeat for emphasis, the civil service should be used as an effective instrument rather than be tampered with just because it is not perfect.