Job blunder exposes flaws in control system

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 December, 2010, 12:00am

The select committee studying the case of former housing director Leung Chin-man should have been more selective.

Reading the committee's report, three issues jump off the page. The first concerns our much vaunted system of ministerial accountability. Whether New World China Land was wise to offer a senior position to someone with whom they'd had extensive official dealings, whether that person was wise to accept the offer, we will all have our opinions. But there can be no doubt that the officer's application to take up the offer should have been rejected. The fact that it was not constitutes a major blunder. Yet the minister, Denise Yue Chung-yee, immediately ruled out resigning. What scale of political error would be required to trigger a ministerial resignation or dismissal?

The second issue is: what sort of post-service employment controls should apply to political appointees? At the moment, ministers, their deputies and assistants are only required, for one year, to consult an advisory committee. They are not obliged to take the committee's advice, just to seek it.

Contrast this with the restraints imposed on senior civil servants, who are subject to control periods of between one and three years. The select committee report suggests these should be extended. But such a proposal is irrelevant to the main problem, which brings us to the third issue: the present system of control is deeply flawed. We need to completely redesign the system and then train people how to operate it effectively. We need to acknowledge that there are two powerful forces pulling in apparently opposite directions. The first is the community's legitimate desire to have an impartial, honest and hard-working civil service. The second is the right of former civil servants to work, a right guaranteed by the Basic Law and by the Bill of Rights. (The present controls breach both and are therefore unlawful and unconstitutional.)

So it is reasonable to institute a system to prevent abuse of power, but that system must be focused.

Why do we wait to deal with applications to work only after the officer has retired? Why can't the Civil Service Bureau study the officer's recent career before he goes out the door, discuss it with his superiors and the officer himself, and agree on a schedule of employment that he cannot undertake because it would create a real or perceived conflict of interest? For a reasonable period after ceasing official duty, the officer could be required to notify the bureau of jobs he wants to accept, for publication in a register open to inspection.

For me, the biggest disappointment has been the stream of Legco members coming out to say that senior civil servants should in effect never be allowed to work for pay after retirement. Their willingness to abandon the human rights of civil servants by playing to the public gallery is neglect of duty.

Moreover, they have failed to spot that we are dealing with a sunset situation. New generations of civil servants are not being hired on pensionable terms. Instead, they will receive a lump sum from the MPF, like private-sector workers. The pensions legislation, which is how the administration enforces its present policy, will gradually become irrelevant.

The select committee has done well to establish what happened and what went wrong. But it has let itself down in the recommendation section. By proposing to build on a flawed system, rather than rebuilding it, it risks perpetuating a situation that neither addresses public concern nor protects civil servants' rights.

After all, if the system is wrong, it doesn't matter whether the control period is 15 minutes or 15 years. It still won't work.

Mike Rowse is the search director of Stanton Chase International and an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong