Part of accountability is to value criticism

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 April, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 April, 2009, 12:00am

Former ombudsman Alice Tai Yuen-ying left her post last month with a parting shot at the ministerial, or 'accountability', system. She accused ministers of focusing on 'putting out fires' and lamented the loss of team spirit due to a lack of co-ordination and the top-down approach of policymaking. She also attributed the lack of continuity within departments to the abundance of contract staff.

The government responded by saying that its senior echelon works as a team and principal officials receive the full support of the civil service. Both sides are partly right.

Like Ms Tai, I was a veteran administrative officer; many of us reminisce about the golden days before the signing of the Joint Declaration in 1984 on the return of Hong Kong to China. Then, the senior echelon of government worked under the direction of the governor in the best interests of Hong Kong and its people, free from local politics and a noisy media. So Ms Lai was right to allude to a stronger team spirit at the time.

But, unlike Ms Tai, I had first-hand experience of being an administrative officer director of a bureau before becoming a politically accountable minister. So, I know the government's intention was to have a strong team of ministers who shared the chief executive's vision and who would implement his election manifesto with the full support of the civil service.

The crux of the matter lies in how the accountability system is implemented. While individual ministers take charge of their policy areas, the chief secretary and financial secretary are responsible for overseeing various policy portfolios - a point made in the government's response to Ms Tai's criticism. But the chief secretary fared poorly when Hongkongers were stranded in Bangkok during last year's 'yellow shirt' protests. And the financial secretary has been criticised over the minibonds saga.

The government's response also mentioned that 'there are in-built matrix mechanisms whereby co-ordination across bureaus and departments can be re-oriented quickly and resources mobilised flexibly to deal with cross-cutting issues promptly and effectively'. Such 'mechanisms', if they exist, did not help prevent the recent spate of blunders in the dispensing and labelling of pharmaceuticals. The fact that the chief executive had to appoint the chief secretary to oversee the management of trees following a coroner's verdict on the death of a woman from a falling tree says much about dysfunctional government machinery.

Contract staff account for less than 10 per cent of the civil service and are subject to the same regulations. That they do not enjoy permanent tenure should not exonerate them from any negligent acts. On the contrary, many perform exemplary public service.

Rather than rejecting Ms Tai's criticism with a defensive statement, the government should put the accountability system into practice and identify the root causes of the state of maladministration.

Joseph Wong Wing-ping, formerly secretary for the civil service, is an honorary professor at the University of Hong Kong