Appointees caught in pay-rise limbo
The question of public service pay can be a sensitive one. Any change, be it pay rise or cut, can provoke a strong response in the community, as we have seen in the past. The question of how much ministers and civil servants are worth depends on a number of factors, such as their performance, pay levels in the private sector and the state of the economy. Sometimes, public opinion plays a part. During an economic downturn officials are understandably expected to tighten their belts along with everyone else, and when the economy improves pay rises are likely to be more sympathetically received.
Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen and his team of political appointees took a voluntary cut in their pay in 2009 of 5.38 per cent, to reflect the troubled economy. Last week, they decided to keep pay at that level, even though the economy has rebounded. A government source said the team had exchanged views on whether it is time to restore their pay to its previous level, given that civil servants have been given increases of up to 7.24 per cent effective from April. But the source conceded that such a move would inevitably create 'political trouble' for the government because of the current political environment.
With a remaining term of just 10 months, such a steady-as-it-goes approach can spare the team, already facing low popularity levels, from further criticism. In that sense, it is a sensible move, especially at a time of much concern about the wealth gap in our city. But there is a need for a better way of determining a fair level of pay for political appointees.
Their pay was cut for political reasons. It was at a time when an annual pay trend survey on private companies suggested senior civil servants should follow suit and also take a pay cut. Ministers and political assistants were under great public pressure to share the pain with the community. Since then, an upturn in the economy and soaring inflation have driven companies to offer pay rises.
Political considerations aside, appointees may well feel their pay should follow this trend.
Unlike civil servants, political appointees have no pay adjustment mechanism. Currently, the monthly salaries of undersecretaries and political assistants range from HK$126,930 to HK$211,560. Taxpayers might ask whether they are getting value for money. But there is also a need to be able to attract top talent from the private sector. Consideration should be given to developing a pay adjustment mechanism for political appointees.
There should be a fair and transparent way of assessing their pay, in good economic times and bad.