Balancing the seats of power

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 August, 2006, 12:00am

Sceptics have been quick to belittle, as politically motivated, the government's latest proposals for a new political appointment system. They say the system will be used to reward supporters and allies, or to enlarge the political empire of the chief executive. Some say the changes will do nothing to further democracy and accountability.

There's no doubt that the best way to strengthen accountability is to elect the chief executive and the legislature by popular election, which would establish a vigorous system of checks and balances. That sort of democratic accountability should remain an important goal for Hong Kong.

But whatever the nature of the political system, the question will remain: what is the best way to fill the top positions of government? Until the introduction of the ministerial system by former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa in 2002, such positions were monopolised by the civil service.

Some might still think that government by bureaucrats is the one best-suited to an administrative state like Hong Kong, where party politics is underdeveloped. There is also the view that, since the chief executive is not popularly elected, a meritocratic civil service upholding political impartiality provides the only countervailing force to any excessive use of power. The price we pay for this, however, is the further entrenchment of bureaucratic power. This renders political parties 'essentially on the outside looking in' when it comes to policymaking and governance - as former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang put it recently. Opening top policymaking positions to people outside the civil service is the only way to groom new political talent.

The 2002 ministerial system launched the government on a path of no return, but that change was only half-baked. Without support from political deputies and assistants, the principal officials have to depend unduly on career civil servants to do what, in other systems, are more properly handled by political appointees. Further, it hasn't been clearly established how the new system could lead to greater accountability. The way forward is both to improve the ministerial system and democratise the election system. The current proposals to introduce politically appointed deputy secretaries and assistants to secretaries are in the right direction - towards strengthening ministerial capacity in terms of policymaking and political work.

But it does not mean that civil servants would become divorced from policy formulation. In some countries, such as Britain, there is a distinction between ministerial officials (secretary of state, minister of state and parliamentary undersecretary) and the civil service team, headed by the permanent secretary. The latter continues to provide active policy advice to ministers. A system of delicate balance of power - and collaboration between the two teams, grounded in ministerial responsibility - enables the government to function effectively.

In Hong Kong, as we move away from a system of government long dominated by bureaucrats, two chief doubts hang over the changes. First, can senior administration officials come around to accept a changed role in policy formulation? Efforts must be made to forge mutual trust and appreciation, to prevent tensions from arising. And a firewall is needed to ensure different lines of command apply to the political tier and the permanent civil service, though they are unified at the level of the minister.

Second, will the government recruit people of high calibre from a wide cross-section of society, to join its political ranks? Any perception of bias towards certain sectors or parties would draw condemnation as political favouritism, not conducive to strengthening and broadening the government's power base.

Anthony Cheung Bing-leung is an executive councillor and founder of SynergyNet, a policy think-tank

political appointments