Donald Tsang
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Developing a political career

Donald Tsang

In his maiden policy address last October, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen emphasised the need to strengthen support for principal officials so they could take on more political work, reach out to the community and seek public support for government. He hinted at the creation of a new channel for people with political aspirations to join the government, including civil servants seeking political careers.

The administration is now in the process of issuing a consultation paper on providing 'political assistants' to policy secretaries, but any proposal for more political positions in government should be conceived as part of the so-called accountability system, introduced in mid-2002.

If the intention is to restructure the executive into separate 'political' and 'administrative' layers - with civil servants who previously occupied all ministerial portfolios now dedicated to a politically neutral role as career officers - then it is necessary to map out the ultimate framework for developing the political (or ministerial) layer of government.

The 2002 reform was only half-baked, to say the least. Ministers were politically appointed without support from deputy or junior ministers. As a result, senior civil servants - particularly administrative officers at permanent-secretary and deputy-secretary level - found that they continued to be involved in 'political' work, such as defending the government in the Legislative Council, lobbying and attending media briefings and public forum debates. While ministers lamented being lone warriors, their civil-service counterparts felt equally shortchanged.

The centralisation of policy powers within the ministerial layer after 2002 did not necessarily ensure quick policy decisions and implementation, either. The capacity to make policies depends as much on the government's political authority as the institutional design for a strong core executive.

In the old days, when administrative officers dominated all ministerial posts, as well as the top layers of all departments and agencies, their esprit de corps was the unifying force of government. With their political influence diminished, finding a new basis for a strong core executive is a matter of urgency. The question is not just about political support for ministers, but the whole future of the government system.

Creating political assistants will solve only a small part of the problem. As long as they are recognised as representing the minister, they will be listened to and relied upon to convey feedback to their boss. But when it comes to managing policy and representing the government at Legco meetings, political assistants - even at a rank equivalent to directorate grade 2 (D2) - are too junior. What ministers need, therefore, are political deputies with sufficient stature.

It would be too expensive to appoint political assistants on D2 salaries to train members of political parties or other political aspirants; such candidates must already have the relevant background, expertise and experience. To what extent a pool of potential aspirants already exists and how it can be enlarged should be realistically assessed before the scheme is launched.

It is unlikely that many civil servants will be keen to switch to a political career. Nowadays, more administrative officers join the civil service to fulfil professional, rather than political, objectives.

Becoming a political assistant would mean retiring from the civil service - and there should be no 'revolving door' allowing them to return, otherwise the service's neutrality would be called into question.

A change in chief executive and his ministerial team may mean a reshuffling of political staff, but such job uncertainties are something aspirants have to accept as part of political life.

Anthony Cheung Bing-leung is a professor of public administration at City University of Hong Kong, an executive councillor and founder of SynergyNet, a policy think-tank