Cutting political ties that bind

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 December, 2006, 12:00am

Few would dispute the vision that the government's structure should be overhauled as part of a larger constitutional reform. During the drafting of the Basic Law, it was too casually assumed that the government could continue to be run by civil servants as principal officials - despite the 'politicisation' of having a chief executive elected locally.

The process of democratisation will only quicken that politicisation. It is unusual, at least by international standards, for local law to prohibit a leader from belonging to a political party, even though party politics are becoming the order of the day in the legislature. All this will have to change as we move closer to universal suffrage.

The political layer of government must be separated from the civil service, or administrative layer - and the earlier, the better. This is the only way to preserve the political neutrality of career civil servants within a politically formed government. The colonial model of government by bureaucrats is incompatible with the new environ- ment.

The bottom line is this: the new system of political appointments should not drive a wedge, even if unintentionally, between the political and administrative layers, causing a disconnection and ultimately crippling the government's effectiveness.

By introducing a tier of politically appointed ministers in 2002, Hong Kong took a step of no return. The proposed addition of ministerial deputies and assistants is supposed to support the ministers, so that they do not need to rely on civil servants to perform tasks of a political nature.

There should be a clear division of roles and responsibilities: ministers and their deputies should focus on the political side of policy-making; senior civil servants should focus on the professional and administrative aspects. Neither side can do without the other; both should work as an integrated team.

Hence, any suggestion that the further development of political appointments will sideline administrative officers and other senior civil servants is unhelpful. In other systems that use ministerial appointments, permanent secretaries and senior civil servants continue to take an active part in formulating and evaluating policy, although they do it behind the scenes rather than out in the political arena.

Ministers cannot afford to ignore their views, though they make the final decisions and are accountable for them. Even with the additional political tiers, government still requires a competent civil service corps.

One argument is that we could wait until we have a fully democratic system of governance before we sort out the internal arrangements. But the problem is that keeping the status quo - with ministers lacking adequate political support and senior civil servants still put in 'quasi-politician' roles - is not a real option. It would continue to generate tensions, to the detriment of both sides.

Though still transitional, the current proposals represent some steps forward. It is important that we have a credible process for recruiting deputy ministers and ministerial assistants, and a firewall between the political and administrative sides of government - so that the political neutrality, integrity and professionalism of our civil service is not eroded.

Some observers are concerned that those civil servants in senior ranks who aspire to political jobs in future might compromise their impartiality for political reasons.

The way to guard against this is to firmly separate the two career tracks, with no provision for reversion through a 'revolving door'. Further, a clear vision must be established of grooming political talent to fill ministerial roles rather than depending on the civil service as the main pool of talent.

How can we better tap the talent in parties, think-tanks, the professions, academia and the vast network of advisory committees? That question should be placed at the forefront of the agenda.

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