Political neutrality in the balance
It has become routine for legislators and district councillors to distribute publicity material on the streets. So, when government district officers emulate this charm offensive, their publicity drive is much more than just a symbolic gesture.
A case in point was the rare meet-the-people show staged by one district officer at a Chinese restaurant this month. Accompanied by aides, the officer handed out pamphlets as part of a public-consultation exercise in connection with a government review of the role, functions and composition of district councils.
The publicity campaign went largely unnoticed, but as veteran legislator Tsang Yok-sing aptly pointed out, it signalled the increasing politicisation of the work of district officers, who are at the frontline of administrative services.
This marked shift is indicative of profound changes facing this elitist group. It came at a time when the government was considering a set of proposals on the introduction of another layer of political appointees at the senior level - assistants to ministers.
On Monday, Secretary for the Civil Service Denise Yue Chung-yee said a consultation paper scheduled for July would contain several options for further development of the so-called accountability system introduced in 2002.
While saying the new political posts would be open to administrative officers, she expressed fears about damage to the long-held tradition of the administration's political neutrality if they were allowed to return later to the civil service.
Although ministers are more involved in political work, Ms Yue said that civil servants would continue to explain government policies in the Legislative Council and to the community.
Hailed as the cream of the bureaucracy and crucial to the city's stable, effective and impartial governance, the role of the 500-odd administrative officers has been shrouded in uncertainty since the accountability system was launched.
Their role in policy-formulation has been seen as blurred at best, and diminished at worst, as ministers assume responsibility for their policies. But because a fully fledged accountability system is still a long way off, administrative officers continue to play an important role in the political process.
Controversies abound over contradictions between the accountability system and the supposedly neutral civil service.
Permanent Secretary for Economic Development and Labour Matthew Cheung Kin-chung caused murmurings among his peers last year, when he publicly backed Donald Tsang Yam-kuen in his campaign for the post of chief executive. His remarks were criticised as a breach of civil servants' political neutrality.
Another case centres on Permanent Secretary for Education and Manpower Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun, whose aggressive work style has blurred the fine line between explaining and championing education policy.
As the district officer's charm offensive shows, a gradual shift by administrative officers towards political work appears irreversible.
Now that Mr Tsang has indicated clearly his tilt towards the friendlier political parties, the fleet of administrative officers faces a difficult balance between upholding political neutrality and acting in compliance with the administration's governing strategy.
The dilemma looks unlikely to be resolved, even with the reported plan to install another layer of political appointees between ministers and civil servants. Put simply, senior civil servants will still have to play a role in explaining policies through work that verges on political lobbying.
Worse still, the new initiative runs the risk of undercutting administrative officers' power and demoralising them further if it creates more questions than answers about the present system.
Chris Yeung is the Post's editor-at-large