THE Legislative Council recently treated everyone to a real spectacle. Members attending a Public Accounts Committee hearing scolded officials for keeping their chauffeurs waiting on overtime, even though this happened because civil servants were working harder to cope with increased demands - some of which were ordered by the legislature.
This 'extravagance' cost an extra $3.8 million last year - which is chicken feed for a treasury which easily hauls in $200 billion in revenue per annum, fields reserves in excess of $150 billion and maintains an Exchange Fund of around $485 billion.
During the course of the 'debate' one member even suggested that senior mandarins 'fight for a taxi' after regular working hours.
I would be chuckling, too, at this mountain made out of a molehill if it were not for what this quibble signifies: a Legco which wants to fuss over every niggling detail of the administration on the assumption that anyone elected automatically knows what is best.
To understand the issue here, we have to think like bosses, which, in a sense, is what we all are because anyone who pays tax is an employer of the Government. A sensible company chairman would not lose sleep over a driver having to stay a couple more hours on a Friday night, but would be worried about whether a senior manager is making the most effective use of his energy and time.
A chauffeur may charge several hundred dollars for his extra effort, but a harried executive could cost the firm thousands of times more through misjudgments and delays. If the public purse spends an extra $3.8 million for the hundreds of millions of dollars worth of right decisions reached each year, we the people have got ourselves a bargain and should not be grumbling too much.
In recent years, first as an outsider and now an insider in Legco, I have noticed some members occasionally confuse trivia with major issues as they try their utmost to be vigilant public watchdogs. Most mean well because their alacrity shows they take their oaths to serve the public seriously.
I blame this nitpicking on Legco's tendency for politicising every topic. But the larger community, sooner or later, is bound to ask that legislators work with, not always against, the Government to solve serious problems such as unemployment and economic stagnation. We in Hong Kong have to ensure that civil service pay and conditions are competitive to attract some of our best and brightest to the public sector. From subsidised housing, medical coverage, a guaranteed pension, job security, and room for self-improvement and promotion - and, yes, a car and driver for the top brass - the benefits have been enough to boost morale and maintain the loyalty of these professionals, some of whom can get more in the private sector. In return for this generosity we expect a clean, efficient, diligent and committed administration - which is what we have.
It is not right to say civil servants have a free ride, figuratively or literally. They are accountable for their actions, more now than ever before. Their every utterance is evaluated. Their every motive challenged. Even their private activities are scrutinised and reported on. We also have at our disposal a totally elected legislative assembly, a meticulous director of audit, the ombudsman, the press, the district boards and the various committees to check for any abuse.
Every week administrators appear before the regular council sitting, myriad panels and also bills committees to explain administration policies and to subject their performance to instant judgment and criticism, fair or otherwise.
GOVERNMENT papers as a consequence are longer and more thorough. Branch secretaries must now lobby for votes and for finance committee support, but without a seat in the legislature to make that tedious job a lot easier.
Department heads and subordinates can be summoned by district boards, where they are sure to get an earful every time. This is democracy and it is sometimes cumbersome, long-winded and costly.
When senior civil servants are assailed by us from so many directions, we would be down right nasty to ask them to give up their cars and drivers after 5.30pm, to line up for cabs, or trudge to their next function, which, while social in name, is in essence strictly business. Nobody goes out four or five evenings a week because he enjoys 'the luxury'. Come to think of it, we are lucky the mandarins do not bill the Government for overtime.