Laying out the changes

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 April, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 12 April, 2002, 12:00am

After days of conflicting reports in the media, officials have finally cleared the air by laying out the structure of the new accountability system for principal officials.

A major surprise in the blueprint unveiled yesterday is that the post of Secretary for Civil Service will be filled by a political appointee. While the appointee must be from within the civil service, he or she, once appointed, will cease to be a civil servant and be accountable to the Chief Executive like other ministers.

Previously, it was thought that the Secretary for Civil Service would remain a civil servant so that he could look after the interests of the civil service and protect its integrity.

The decision to make the bearer of this office a political appointee is a recognition of the fact that any policy on the civil service is by its very nature a political one. Also, the implementation of the accountability system would not be complete if the Secretary for Civil Service could not be removed for failing to push through the Chief Executive's agenda.

The system's new command structure, which provides that all the ministers be directly accountable to the Chief Executive, could prove embarrassing for the Chief Secretary and the Financial Secretary. Traditionally, each is in charge of a number of policy areas with the bureau chiefs concerned reporting to the Chief Executive through them.

Although the new structure still recognises the seniority of the Chief Secretary, Financial Secretary and Secretary for Justice, and the three will continue to receive higher pay, their clout over other ministers and whether they will be bypassed by the latter is expected to be dependent on their personal relationship with the Chief Executive.

Changes are unsettling. It will take time for senior civil servants, particularly members of the administrative service who form the backbone of the administration and have been playing dual roles as both departmental administrators and policy-makers, to get used to working under political appointees, particularly those from outside the civil service.

But the adaptation process will be helped by the fact that most of Mr Tung Chee-hwa's first batch of ministers are expected to be drawn from among the existing policy secretaries who are civil servants.