Is it too much to expect civil servants to serve the public interest? | South China Morning Post
  • Tue
  • Mar 31, 2015
  • Updated: 5:25pm
CommentInsight & Opinion

Is it too much to expect civil servants to serve the public interest?

Stephen Vines says trust in government is being gradually eroded

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 August, 2014, 3:25pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 August, 2014, 2:07am

In some rather perverse way, we should be grateful to Anita Lam Ka-fun, an assistant director in the Lands Department, for bringing into sharp focus the issue of integrity in the civil service.

As others have noted, this is not merely a matter of civil servants obeying the law but of whether they conduct themselves in a manner likely to enhance or detract from public trust in government.

Lam bought a large plot of land in Yuen Long that greatly increased in value after a decision was made to create a new town on an adjacent site.

As a senior member of the department, Lam was likely to have been aware of the internal discussions over this project and its implications.

She is also a member of the Town Planning Board's Rural and New Town Planning Committee, which generously handled her family's application to build four houses on the land. She absented herself from that discussion, having declared an interest.

Once all this came to light, the government moved with great haste not only to give Lam a clean bill of health but to reiterate that "it is government policy to protect the right of civil servants to make investments while maintaining their impartiality and accountability to the public".

Well, it's quite a relief to learn that some of the highest paid civil servants in the world are having their rights to invest so assiduously protected.

But what signal is this sending to the public? We know how clever bureaucrats are at making the rules work for themselves but why is it that public officials cannot see how bad it looks if they become both players as individuals and goalkeepers in their professional capacity?

When this behaviour relates to personal activities in areas directly connected with their jobs, this matter is even more pressing.

There is no more sensitive financial issue in Hong Kong than land because the government is the only body able to control its supply to the market.

Therefore, public officials working directly in this area might be expected to be scrupulous in abstaining from dabbling in the market.

Moreover, one of the worst-kept secrets is the existence of the revolving door that carries retired lands and planning department officials into the employment of property developers and turns yet more junior officials into planning "advisers" who are hired to deal with their former colleagues on behalf of their newly acquired clients.

None of this is illegal or, according to the grand people who run the civil service, a breach of custom and practice.

Yet does it not produce a rather distinctive stench of conflict of interest?

Is there really no shame among senior civil servants who seem to believe that they have a right to profit from their employment in ways that are over and above the remuneration they have received from the public purse?

The central reason for providing adequate remuneration and secure employment to civil servants is to deter them from the temptation of exploiting public office for personal gain.

On the whole this works in Hong Kong, where the civil service has a good reputation and there is no need for citizens to enter government offices armed with stacks of used banknotes to ensure a satisfactory outcome to their dealings with officials.

However, there seems to be a sense that the ethos of public service is being eroded. As ever, what matters is not just what is done, but what is seen to be done.

The public needs to be reassured that civil servants carry out their duties without an eye to personal gain.

Surely that is not an unreasonable demand?

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur

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