Working well with civil service vital to keep city functioning

Hong Kong and Beijing realise need for political appointees to adopt new approach to teamwork

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 September, 2013, 5:17am

In a newsroom, every piece of news is edited, checked and double checked before it can be printed or aired, but even that cannot always guarantee it is 100 per cent error-free, but at least, there is a system of checks.

But when an error occurs in something written by a senior government official, who is to blame? Is there a check system? If so, is it working properly?

That was the puzzle when Development Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po raised many eyebrows by suggesting in his blog the week before last that certain land falling within Hong Kong's country parks could be considered for housing. Unfortunately, he got his facts wrong. He estimated that country parks take up 70 per cent of Hong Kong's total land, but it should be 40 per cent.

An official correction was issued by the bureau the next day. But many wondered if Chan checked the data with his bureau or if any of his colleagues noticed it? The episode triggered concerns on how political appointees like Chan and their civil servant colleagues can work together more closely to avoid mistakes, especially factual ones.

This comes back to a long-standing question: Who can run Hong Kong well?

Look at the background of our three chief executives. We had Tung Chee-hwa who was from the business sector; then Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, a career civil servant; and now Leung Chun-ying, once a professional surveyor. It was seen as Beijing trying different ideas about what type of candidates were most suited to run the city. It seems no definite conclusion has been drawn, given the eventful past 16 years.

It is natural that calls for a future leader to have political affiliation are growing, but this is a complicated issue that needs further study and Beijing's consent. One force that will keep the city functioning is its more than 160,000 civil servants.

It was therefore interesting, a week ago, when Civil Service Secretary Paul Tang Kwok-wai led a team of all 11 permanent secretaries and department heads to Beijing and Jiangsu for a six-day study course and visit and was received by Vice-President Li Yuanchao, who praised them.

Leung defended the trip as a normal exchange, amid some questions it was a sign of Beijing trying to influence civil servants, but Beijing's message is crystal clear, given the timing of this "normal exchange".

The trip came days after Zhang Dejiang, Beijing's man in charge of Hong Kong affairs, gave high level support to a delegation from the disciplined services led by Security Secretary Lai Tung-kwok.

Since the introduction of the political accountability system more than 10 years ago, the challenge of how to foster smooth and efficient working relations between civil servants and senior political appointees has triggered public concerns.

While Leung has been trying hard to build teamwork relations with the civil servants, some of his cabinet members are facing tougher challenges. For Beijing, besides reconfirming its support for Leung, the civil servants are a force that cannot be ignored.