In March 1999, a high-ranking official sought to impress doubters of the political will of the Tung Chee-hwa administration in reforming the bureaucracy by likening a proposed overhaul of the civil service system to surfing. 'When the wave comes,' he said, 'surf out to the sea with no reservations ... Go as far as you can'. The official spoke as the government outlined in a 27-page consultative document entitled 'Civil Service into the 21st century' its visions to reinvigorate the decades-old ossified and much-criticised system. Under the 1999 blueprint, only one-third of the civil service would be given permanent terms in 10 to 20 years' time, with the remaining two-thirds on contract terms subject to renewal based on performance and need. Among other things, pay rises would be pegged with performance, outdated allowances reviewed and redundancies of staff simplified. At a time when the tide of change was high in an era of post-financial turmoil, there was a sense of 'it's now or never' among the government's senior echelon. At a Central Policy Unit conference in April 1999, ex-civil service chief Lam Woon-kwong concluded 'the status quo is not an option'. More than five years on, the civil service-bashing sentiments have subsided. The fleet of civil servants has been downsized from almost 200,000 to 168,500. The number will be reduced to 160,000 by 2006. More employees are on contracts. A client-oriented culture has embedded in the bureaucracy. A full-scale study on pay is under way. Last week, the Civil Service Bureau revealed in a paper to the Legislative Council a list of outdated perks and allowances it wanted slightly revised. In a recent letter sent to unionists, the chief executive has indicated the government has no intention of introducing more drastic reforms. Speaking in Legco last week, Democrat Cheung Man-kwong said: 'Stability is above everything. What Mr Tung has done is to not make any changes, despite the sea change in society.' In reply, Secretary for Civil Service Joseph Wong Wing-ping said the government would find a balance between staff concerns and public interest. 'The civil service must strive to improve itself. Reform ... must continue.' The University of Hong Kong's Professor John Burns, a leading academic authority on Hong Kong's civil service system, offered his opinion: 'The public perception is that there was a lot of noise, light and action in 1999, [but] since 2000, the momentum seems to have reduced. The reason is this is a weak government, it has legitimacy problems. 'It [the government] is on the defensive. The reformers among them know where they should be going. There is so much resistance, not from individuals, but the system ... It's a very competent, clean, but old-fashioned, 1970s-style civil service.' The Chair Professor of Politics and Public Administration at HKU revisited the development of the civil service since the 1980s in a book entitled Government Capacity and the Hong Kong Civil Service released last month. He concluded the civil service has compared favourably with other systems in the world with its corruption-free achievements. But he added: 'The government has been less successful at instilling within the civil service a performance-oriented culture. Indeed, the political system in Hong Kong has allowed the civil service to manage itself with nearly complete autonomy. '... a system of formal and informal rules has emerged that does not particularly value performance. Individuals are embedded in this system, and in spite of their intentions, they have no way out except to conform,' he wrote. Professor Burns told the South China Morning Post he had no doubt about the government's commitment to becoming more performance-based. But he lamented little had been done. He cited as a case in point the rigidity of the pay system which was based on position, not performance. 'It doesn't reward people in responding to people's needs. The Civil Service Bureau is telling people you have to pay attention to these things, but the incentive system is not reinforcing that. That's the crux of the problem.' He argued a lack of democratic institutions had allowed the government to set its own pay levels without effective monitoring and participation from the community. 'In democracies such as New Zealand, politicians set their own salaries at the top level of civil service salaries. Once they do that here, there will be a strong incentive to keep the salaries low. Politicians aren't going to say 'vote for me, and I'll raise my salaries'.' Professor Burns said neither politicians nor the business community could act as an effective counterweight to the demands of the government and the unions on civil service pay. 'Legco doesn't have the power. If anything, that's been captured by trade unions. Who's head of its public services panel? It's [unionist] Tam Yiu-chung. Their reports have regularly articulated the position of staff unions. They always say 'go slow, don't rock the boat and don't change too fast'. 'The parties opposed cuts to civil service pay because they knew they would not be held responsible for it - it would be implemented anyway. A democratic system would bring the community view to the legislature. 'Business groups have argued civil service salaries are high. But their position is self-defeating. On one hand, they want lower salaries, [yet] they are unwilling to adopt more democratic institutions which would lead to salaries more in tune with the private sector. 'This is the premium they are willing to pay for not having democracy.' Professor Burns said it was critical for the government to speed up the current review of the pay-level survey mechanism and pay system. A more rigorous downsizing of what he called the core civil service, he said, was also the way forward for revamping the system. 'What Hong Kong needs is a strong, committed core civil service - relatively small, or half the size of the civil service now. Departments should be managed more like executive agencies with flexibility to hire and fire, and set salaries based on market conditions. Such systems have worked well in countries like Britain, New Zealand and Australia.' The experience of public sector reform in those countries showed it would not result in chaos and instability as unionists had feared, he said. The number of non-civil service contract staff has risen from about 3,000 three years ago to about 16,000 now. 'We have to continue this. Civil servants must be aware the old tenure system is gone, just like with other public sectors in the world,' he said. Civil service reform was one important factor in boosting government capacity, he said, but added the impact would be limited, particularly in view of the introduction of the executive accountability system in mid-2002. 'This government has chosen to focus on civil service reform because it is unable to put more fundamental reform on the political agenda in Beijing. Administrative reform is going to have a marginal impact. Substantial change has to come from institutional, constitutional reform.' Professor Burns, who served as a member of the Civil Service Training and Development Advisory Committee between 1997 and 2003 and is a long-time Hong Kong resident, said the winds of change in service culture and the geography of politics were clear on university campuses and in society. 'Problems such as poor performance, under-performance were always there. It's not a new problem. This did not start after 1997. This was tolerated. The then urban services department was a very good example of wastage and inefficiency. People felt we could afford inefficiency.' The department was badly hit by a spate of scandals over laxity of work. It was abolished in a restructuring exercise after the handover. Professor Burns said the economic downturn since 1998 had depleted the treasury. New demands on the government such as finding jobs have been raised in the community. 'When you drive around Hong Kong, you see civil servants sitting on the roadside playing cards as I have done, this cannot be tolerated. People are demanding. [People feel] 'This is our government, not a colonial government - it should treat us well'.'