More must answer the noble call to serve

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 July, 2010, 12:00am

A recent Yahoo news report on who gets paid what in the Obama White House brings to the fore some eye-popping facts about top-level public service pay in President Barack Obama's administration. Just as presidential pay is capped at US$400,000 a year, considerably lower than that of our chief executive, salaries of the president's closest aides are capped at US$180,000, again considerably lower than those of our ministers.

What is it about the US system that drives top-notch talent to work for considerably lower pay than they would otherwise get in the private sector? The job is demanding: White House chiefs of staff rarely serve out the full term of their masters; stories abound of rapidly greying White House senior staff quitting after a stint, pleading the need to return to a more normal life and better health. Could it be fame - 'the last infirmity of noble mind', in John Milton's words - or the allure of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, when they take up much more lucrative positions after their return to private life? Or simply a passion to serve one's country and a willingness to sacrifice?

By contrast, administrative officers of the Hong Kong government, supposedly the creme de la creme, are paid at above-average levels at the start of their career. They lose out financially, relative to the private sector, as they reach dizzier heights.

Yet senior civil servants have one luxury that few managers in the private sector have - that you can be gone for four to six weeks on 'annual leave', and return to find that your job is still there, and you don't have to take responsibility for what went wrong when somebody was standing in for you. Moreover, until the advent of democracy, senior civil servants had practically unfettered power to shape the lives of millions under their charge.

Such idyllic life of the senior civil servants - common in the good old days - is becoming increasingly threatened by mounting political pressures. Eyebrows were raised recently when Betty Fung Ching Suk-yee, director of the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, went on her usual annual leave after trees continued to fall and kill despite the establishment of a new tree management office.

Senior civil servants are more sheepish about their perks, but what the public regard as generous gravy is still tightly held within the civil service as 'entitlements'.

So there you are - what we have in Hong Kong is a fundamentally different public service system. Its backbone is a civil service that is reliable, predictable and stable - thanks in no small degree to the rock-solid compensation system in which it is anchored. Civil servants do their jobs conscientiously, and most cannot be faulted for want of trying, but what is missing is a more passionate commitment to serve and a willingness to take risks, regardless of the size of the pay cheque and the benefit of job security.

As Hong Kong moves rapidly into the democratic era, what we want are not only capable civil servants, but also passionate leaders who put the common good above private gains and security of tenure.

The last thing we want is a steady exodus of experienced but battle-weary civil servants to much more profitable positions in non-governmental public organisations - filling much needed management needs there, but depleting the senior civil service ranks of the requisite know-how and experience.

That is serious food for thought for those at the helm: why are experienced administrative officers leaving in droves? Is that due simply to the desire for less work and higher pay, disgust with the growing politicisation, or an intrinsic lack of passion and commitment to serve?

There are good reasons to be worried about the quality of our public service if noble passion and ideals are truly absent.

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a legislator and chairwoman of the Savantas Policy Institute