Tsang must put an end to the rot within

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 September, 2009, 12:00am

In a little over a month from now, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen will deliver his fifth policy address. Top government officials are doing the rounds of district level consultations now, while the big man is meeting the city's movers and shakers in preparation. But it is highly unlikely that there will be any surprises on October 14.

We already know a large portion of his address will be dedicated to presenting the Task Force on Economic Challenges' new economic pillars. A few paragraphs will be devoted to constitutional reform unless, of course, the chief executive wants to see another walkout by legislators.

Economic pillars and constitutional reform are very important, to be sure, but there is one other pressing issue our government can no longer keep on the backburner. The first order of business for the chief executive is to get his house in order.

Failing to get legislators to co-operate is not the government's only problem. The series of rows within the civil service in recent months poses a threat to the administration's governance and indicates serious problems that will leave the government divided and incapacitated. Not only is the government challenged with social discontent; it seems to be having a really tough time dealing with itself. Unless the chief executive takes concrete steps to resolve these internal disputes, Lower Albert Road will become Hong Kong's political backwater.

Whether disgruntled civil servants are upset over their pay (disciplinary service officers), their work (food and hygiene officers) or their management (public health service providers), they can make or break Tsang's political career. Having been a career civil servant - an attribute once considered his biggest asset - no one should know better than the chief executive the issues of conflict and the solutions to stop them further crippling his government.

Rethinking the pay-review mechanisms or the job portfolios of our large civil service will take some time, but the chief executive must begin by looking hard at those closest to him.

Where is our Secretary for the Civil Service Denise Yue Chung-yee? Yue, herself a highly praised civil servant, is almost nowhere to be found. She has promised to conduct studies and reviews, but they will not answer the main qualm over the fairness of these mechanisms. Whatever happened to her bureau's mission to 'implement the most effective human resource management practices to nurture an efficient and fulfilled workforce'? Surely, there must have been warning signs before these issues evolved. Yue's effectiveness and credibility have been called into question since the Leung Chin-man controversy, and it may be time for some tough decisions to be made.

Secretary for Security Ambrose Lee Siu-kwong must have had a role to play when disciplinary services officers began voicing their objections. And what about his political assistant, Victor Lo Yik-kee? Is it not his job to improve communication with those under his boss' watch?

Former civil servants like Leung, Yue, Lee and Lo have tarnished - some more than others - the image of Hong Kong's civil service, and the haemorrhaging must stop. Tsang, who has never been shy with his praises for the civil service, must go beyond lip service and restore the foundations of an effective and efficient civil service.

Given so much discontent with government, inside and out, it is hardly the right formula for strong, proactive and pragmatic governance. Internal, on top of external, agitations will not bring new direction to Hong Kong; and, under these circumstances, policy initiatives will face uphill battles for a divided populace to find common ground.

The administration's crises within the civil service must be dealt with swiftly. A chief executive unable to keep his house in order will have little room, or time, to lead.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA