Still too far removed from the real world

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 April, 2010, 12:00am

It is sometimes hard for outsiders to understand the extent of abnormality in the civil service employment system. This week, the government made a relatively modest, but nonetheless welcome, change to the system, shortening the probation period for permanent employment from six to three years. This inches civil service employment closer to common practice in the outside world but still leaves civil servants on a remote and rather privileged planet of their own.

How many Hong Kong employees do you know who are not only given lifetime employment but have only one employer from the moment they enter the workforce until they leave? How many employees do you know who are able to gain promotion not necessarily on merit but by virtue of length of service? And, where else in the labour market is there a system so studiously governed by red tape as to discriminate in favour of those who show the least initiative?

Lifetime employment and all the other security offered by a government job should not automatically be derided because there is such a thing as a public service ethos. At best, this provides a real service to the community, but members of the public dealing with bureaucrats often find themselves treated as supplicants bowing to a superior force.

The detachment of the civil service is hardly unique to Hong Kong. Indeed, in most parts of the world, there is a problem with the way that the civil service interacts with the rest of the community. The difference is that, in many other places, strenuous efforts are made to address this issue.

For example, Britain has a system to encourage established civil servants to take leave and venture into the outside world of employment for a time. This is mirrored by a scheme to bring specialists in on a short-term basis. Elsewhere, employment in the civil service is more fluid, as in certain parts of the US, where officials do not enjoy lifetime employment.

Hong Kong's tentative attempts to open up the bureaucracy have mainly caused derision because they focus on the 'mini-minister' scheme that introduces a new layer of bureaucrats who are also supposed to be politicians. The established civil service has largely managed to sideline them while, on the political level, they have made so little public impact as to be not worth discussing.

Yet the civil service is hardly a basket case. When it works well, it can be impressive. The web of corruption that permeated some levels has largely been eradicated and, particularly in specialist areas, there are impressive officials who could easily hold their own in competition with private-sector counterparts.

However, the civil service as a whole faces a major institutional problem inherited from the colonial regime; one that has been exacerbated under the new order. Hopefully, no one will make the pathetic argument that reform arrived when a few civil servants resigned and took up ministerial roles, resulting in a remarkable personality change.

Nor is it possible to say with a straight face that the introduction of a few unimpressive outsiders brought in to occupy so-called ministerial posts has altered the fact that civil servants are both executors and initiators of policy. This cuts out the vital control of a political body that makes the system accountable by being subject to removal from office at election times.

The essence of bureaucracy is a remarkable aversion to risk, a staggering ability to say 'no' to everything, and a lack of imagination. That is why real politicians, with their many faults, need to be part of the system of government. But, in Hong Kong, this is barred by law and so the civil service reigns supreme.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur