Cynics may dismiss the Summit on District Administration as a political show. But there was no lack of effort to give more substance to the annual meeting of top government officials and district leaders. In a show of support, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen spoke highly of the importance of district administration in a keynote speech. Six ministers in charge of policy bureaus, ranging from transport and housing to health and food, joined small group discussions to canvass opinions on issues that most concerned the participants. At the end of the half-day meeting, ministers promised to follow up more than 10 issues, including a neighbourhood child-care project, hawker and rodent management, the use of school facilities, and the revitalisation of old districts and buildings. If the star-studded conference received only modest media coverage, it was mainly because most, if not all, the issues raised were hardly new. The most substantive initiative, which was announced by Mr Tsang, was the extension of opening hours of libraries in the New Territories, from six days a week to seven. The move will take a year to implement. While there was little else of substance in the summit, Mr Tsang was big on rhetoric about the importance the government attaches to district politics, specifically the role of district councillors and district officers. Mr Tsang said that district officers and all government departments would co-operate with district councillors to implement measures that would help people's livelihoods. 'The role of district officers is [that of] district chief executive,' he said. 'They should proactively promote community building, assist in the effective implementation of government policies, reach out to the community, and perform the role of a political leader in the districts, which was the mission of district officers in the new era.' Mr Tsang was in a nostalgic mood when he recalled his time as Sha Tin district officer, in 1982. He told delegates he had been given the nickname 'big warlord' by district figures because of the enormous powers he enjoyed over community development. The role of district officers, he said, was closely related to the rapid development of new towns over the past two decades. By elevating district officers to 'district chief executives', Mr Tsang is eager to revive their traditional powerful status and give them a leadership role in political affairs. Specifically, that means district officers are expected to ensure public grievances over such matters as rodent management and library services are addressed, and action is taken quickly. This is to make sure local issues do not become political ones. It also means that district officers are expected to play a frontline role in uniting the government-friendly political forces, to help bolster effective implementation of government policies in the districts. Almost three decades after district administration reform began, the political landscape has undergone a massive change following the introduction of Legislative Council elections. The lines between district and legislative politics have become blurred, and intrinsically linked. There are cases aplenty where ministers have had to reach out directly to district councillors and local figures for support on 'local issues'. These include a new incinerator in Tuen Mun, socio-economic problems in Tin Shui Wai, and conservation projects in Central and Wan Chai. The fact that six ministers were present at Saturday's summit says something about the changing dynamics in politics. To give a bigger political role to district officers helps give the civil service elite an early taste of elective politics. Yet, it will be a tall order for them to call the shots on local issues, as Mr Tsang did in the 1980s. Put simply, times have changed. Chris Yeung is the Post's editor-at-large.