A SEAT on the Executive Council is a mark of prestige and authority within the community, as well as a passport to the secrets of Government. It bestows both power and responsibility and, in the past, a high profile. When the Government needed supportfor its policies, members were expected to speak up. Today its role in advising the Governor and acting as a check-and-balance on the administration's policies may be no different, but the public perception most certainly is. Since the October 7 policy speech by Mr Chris Patten, doubts have arisen as to the value and effectiveness of Exco. The impression has been created of a body that has been sidelined in the new power structure. The removal of politicians from Exco no doubt makes its discussions more consensual, less stage managed, but it has left the public with the image of a small, elite group divorced from the hurly-burly of debate about the big issues of the day. With the Governor well and truly in the limelight since his arrival six months ago, and the reshaped Legislative Council being propelled into a pivotal role in the argument between Britain and China over political reform, Exco's contribution has been difficult to discern. It is a deliberate decision by Mr Patten to take the flak himself, rather than claim his policies were the result of consultations with his inner cabinet. Indeed, the package he unveiled in his policy speech three months ago was not endorsed by Exco, for the simple reason he did not take it to them in advance. That in itself has tended to devalue Exco's importance in the public eye. Its current members, only two of whom survived from the previous Governor's collection of advisers, will argue that they continue to exercise vigorously their right to approve or reject plans and policies put before them, and that they often help the administration to avoid costly or embarrassing mistakes. The separation of the Executive and Legislative Councils has, however, made it harder for that contribution to be more widely appreciated. The respect that the old-style Exco commanded derived not only from members' own wealth of local experience, but also their contact with public opinion through cross-membership with the Legislative Council. Once decisions had been taken by Exco, it was the job of those councillors who were also members of the legislature to explain Government thinking and lobby support. The politicisation of Exco following the 1991 Legislative Council elections complicated the process, with four out of the six unofficials with a seat on both councils being members of the conservative Co-operative Resources Centre, while the triumphant liberals were excluded from the senior body. For a dedicated democrat like Mr Patten, that was clearly unacceptable, and he decided to dispense with the link, and take on the lobbying job himself, backed up by his three ex-officio members and by the huge persuasive resources of the administration. The result is that, in the great debate over the Governor's political reform proposals, the silence from Exco has been conspicuous, to the point that speculation has arisen as to whether some individual members are reluctantly being dragged down a road not of their own choosing, and are therefore choosing to say nothing. Very soon Exco will be examining the Bills that the Government will bring forward to the Legislative Council next month containing the controversial political reform proposals that China finds so objectionable. Yet the members are in the invidious position of being able to do no more than act as the rubber-stamp body they constantly deny they are. The Governor has made it plain, time and time again, that it will be the Legislative Council's judgement which will decide the final shape of his reform proposals, or even throw them out. How, then, can the Executive Council suggest amendments to points they may not like, or believe are capable of improvement, before the Bills reach the Legislative Council? The public may be left with the unfavourable view that Exco has been reduced to a group of Governor's yes-men (and women), or that the rules of confidentiality and collective responsibility prevent their true feelings from being known on one of the most important issues facing Hongkong in the last years of British rule.