As political aides quit, do we need to replace them?

Speculation about three recent resignations distracts from a bigger issue of nurturing talent

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 September, 2013, 4:53am

What makes one quit one's job? The reasons vary from person to person, but common factors include family considerations, better opportunities elsewhere and a dislike of the prevailing corporate culture. Most are understandable and readily accepted as genuine.

But when someone in government resigns, whatever reason is given, it is likely to raise suspicions that the government is not a happy place.

That was the case when Carmen Cheung Sau-lai, the hand-picked political assistant to Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, tendered her resignation last week, citing a need to take care of her aged mother. Both Lam and Cheung stressed that they'd had a pleasant working relationship over the past year, but that did not stop some suspicious people from speculating that the opposite was true, especially given Lam's reputation as an iron lady. Some took Cheung's resignation as a sign that she was disillusioned with the administration overall.

Cheung is the third political assistant to quit the government in less than two months. Her departure follows that of Zandra Mok Yee-tuen, an aide to welfare minister Matthew Cheung Kin-chung. Mok is a mother of two, and said she felt obliged to spend more time with her children. But for some people, that didn't wash, and it was rumoured that she felt the government's credibility was flagging and she no longer wanted to be part of it.

The only political assistant so far whose resignation has not caused much speculation is Henry Ho Kin-chung, aide to development minister Paul Chan Mo-po. He resigned in early August after revelations that he did not declare his family's interest in a massive government land development project in the New Territories.

Last week the government saved some face when Greg So Kam-leung happily announced that Trade Development Council veteran Godfrey Leung King-kwok was joining as his deputy, and when Leung pointedly vowed not to quit before his time was up.

In any organisation, when someone leaves because their bosses are obnoxious or incompetent, or because the corporate culture is toxic and dysfunctional, the sad fact is that their departure is unlikely to spur a change for the better in those bosses or that culture.

The government is the biggest employer in town, and it has an institutional culture that differs from the various workplace cultures in the private sector. One feature of it is its well established civil service structure, which political appointees and incoming personnel from other backgrounds must learn and adapt to.

The resignations of three political assistants in such a short period thus raises the question of how effective the government has been in training up its own talent.

The answer appears to be "Not very". That could explain why the suggestion has emerged that the government need not fill the vacancies, since a number of bureaus run smoothly without political assistants.

Nurturing political talent should be a matter of urgency, but doing that by hiring political assistants is problematic and not working well.