What the ministerial system needs is a 'kitchen cabinet'
THE HONG KONG media conducted a review of the ministerial system after its first 100 days and found it has yet to secure the trust of the people. But in terms of evolution, its significance is not to be underestimated.
Ideally, the system allows the chief executive to invite a coalition of political parties controlling a majority of legislature seats to fill all the ministerial positions and join the Executive Council. This will guarantee a stable relationship between the executive and legislative branches, and allow parties, which support the government, to take part in the policy-making process.
However, the probability of realising such a scenario in the near future is low, mainly because the Chinese authorities will not accept it. They perceive it as legislature leadership and insist on maintaining executive leadership.
Apparently, Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa is not interested in pursuing this approach, nor is the civil service. But in the third election of the chief executive, in 2007, the media and the community will press all major candidates to reveal their teams of potential ministers. These teams will likely be important in influencing decisions by the Chinese leadership and by members of the Election Committee.
Further, key supporters of chief executive candidates, who are likely to become their ministers, will probably help in lobbying for Election Committee members' votes.
This time around, Mr Tung did not allow sufficient time for his ministers to cultivate a team spirit. Hence, in the initial stage, they seemed to have been over eager to make their mark, while Mr Tung appeared to have failed in forging a team spirit among them.
Today, the majority of ministers are former top civil servants, but it is likely that this will change in the future.
If it does, and the bulk of ministers comes from outside the civil service, then a co-ordinating mechanism between the Executive Council and the civil service may have to be established - to allow staff to articulate their professional views and ensure co-ordination among policy branches.
The Japanese government has such a mechanism in place, while most Western countries have a 'kitchen cabinet' within their cabinets - much like the Standing Committee within the Politburo.
The SAR should follow the Japanese government's example and establish a committee of permanent secretaries from the various policy bureaus.
To some extent, the Office of the Chief Executive could act as co-ordinator among the ministers. Under the US presidential system, White House staff perform such functions. It could be given the task of defining the political and policy priorities of the administration, and determine the allocation of resources, including political ones. But it would need to be controlled by someone who enjoys the complete trust of the chief executive.
An alternative would be for three senior ministers to form a 'kitchen cabinet', which could be tasked with the overall co-ordination of government policies.
The government is under pressure to reduce civil service numbers, but at the same time ministers will gradually be given greater power to recruit and promote their own staff.
Gradually, ministers may ask for their own teams in order to implement policy programmes.
Shaping a new policy package and introducing reforms single-handedly among neutral civil servants is usually very difficult.
Under such circumstances, maintaining the morale and efficiency of the civil service will be a major challenge.
A final point is that resources for policy research within the government is seriously inadequate.
How to re-allocate limited resources to strengthen policy research work should now be a significant agenda item for ministers.
Joseph Cheng Yu-shek is a professor of political science at the City University of Hong Kong