It's the spirit of the rules that civil servants must adhere to
When it comes to guarding against conflicts of interest, our civil service arguably outshines its regional counterparts. There is no shortage of general and job-specific regulations on conduct and integrity. While the team is largely clean and honest, transgressions do occur from time to time. The recent row surrounding a senior Lands Department official underlines inadequacies in our declaration system.
It is common sense that officials should avoid investments in areas under their portfolio. This is not just to prevent them from abusing possible insider knowledge for personal gain, but to avoid the perception that they are doing so. It is little wonder, therefore, the public was outraged to learn that Lands Department assistant director Anita Lam Ka-fun and her husband had bought more than 8,000 square metres of agricultural land in Yuen Long in 2012, two months after the government had designated an adjoining area for new-town development. She was said to have declared the purchase but her supervisor did not seem to think it was a problem and simply told her not to handle issues involving that site. She later sought approval from a Town Planning Board committee to build four houses there. She is a member of that committee but did not take part in meetings that discussed her application.
True, that declaration was made. But it does little to dilute the impression that a conflict of interest was involved. The outcry proves that she and her supervisor had been insensitive to public perception. After the incident came to light, the department conceded that the investment might have triggered public suspicion. Lam has been moved to a new post and a review of the declaration system is under way. That it takes another row to push for a review is regrettable. The "don't fix if it ain't broken" mentality is entrenched across officialdom. Guidelines are only useful when their is adhered to faithfully. The last thing the public wants to hear is the excuse that rules have been properly followed and so there is no wrongdoing.