Talent pool for plum public roles needs refilling

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 March, 2014, 4:22am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 March, 2014, 4:22am

An argument for appointing someone from the civil service as ombudsman is that he or she knows how the bureaucracy works - an advantage to an independent watchdog charged with redressing people's grievances arising from public maladministration. On the other hand, he or she is also a product of the system. There is no evidence in the track records of the last two ombudsmen, both from civil service backgrounds, that this affected impartiality. It is more an issue of perception, and justice must not only be done but be seen to be done.

That is one reason for welcoming the appointment as ombudsman of Connie Lau Yin-hing, the first in 15 years from outside the civil service. Lau, who retired in 2012 as chief executive of the Consumer Council after a lifetime career, succeeds former retired senior civil servants Alan Lai Nin and Alice Tai Yuen-ying. Not surprisingly, one of the first questions put to Lau was whether she was worried about government departments co-operating with her, given her background. We trust that she was right to express confidence that civil servants would not see things this way, since she was there to handle complaints and help government improve, not find fault. The question remains, however, whether a career in consumer advocacy alone is good enough preparation.

While Lau's career background may set her apart, her retired status does not. It continues a pattern of appointing retired people, often civil servants and sometimes familiar faces, to plum statutory or advisory positions. The city may be fortunate that they remain available while still in their prime, but it raises the question whether the government should be identifying and nurturing a bigger and more diverse pool of talent from which it can draw to fill such important public appointments. The post of director of the Office of the Ombudsman, for example, could appeal to barristers who might otherwise be attracted by elevation to the judiciary, even if the pay for either may not appeal to higher earners at the bar.