Eight years after the political appointees system was introduced, the chief executive has sparked heated debate by hinting a 'revolving door' policy might help them return to their old careers when their terms end. In his policy address, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen said more flexibility was needed to attract people from different walks of life to join the team. As it is already easy for appointees to get private-sector jobs after serving in the government, this latest move raised suspicion that the government was planning to open a door for appointees from the civil service to return. At present they cannot do this. The debate cooled off after officials said there was no plan to introduce such a move during the remainder of Tsang's term. But it leaves the door open for his successor to allow political appointees to return to the civil service. The revolving door is a political practice common in democracies such the United States and Britain, sometimes leading to criticism of vested interests and a ruling elite. People move in both directions between politically appointed government positions and other arenas, such as business, academia, think tanks and the legislature. Under Hong Kong's political appointment system - known as the principal officials accountability system when launched by chief executive Tung Chee-hwa in 2002 - appointees have only to seek the advice of a chief executive-appointed committee before taking up a new job within a year of leaving office. This requirement applies equally to appointees from the civil service, who have to quit the service before taking up their appointments. In contrast, serving civil servants have to go through multiple steps of vetting and approval for post-service job applications. There is no revolving door allowing appointees to return to the civil service. Two examples of appointees returning to the business sector are former financial secretary Antony Leung Kam-chung, who is now chairman of private equity group Blackstone Asia, and former secretary for commerce and economic development Frederick Ma Si-hang, who now chairs China Strategic, a listed holdings company. 'There is a two-way flow, but the practice is not well established, partly because the majority of political appointees come from the civil service,' said Executive Councillor Professor Anthony Cheung Bing-leung, who has been researching public sector management and civil service reforms in Hong Kong and Asia for many years. 'I notice in Hong Kong, the kind of government experience held by senior officials is seen as valuable. I wouldn't see any difficulty in them finding suitable positions after serving in the government,' Cheung said, citing professorial posts offered by universities to Ma and former minister Joseph Wong Wing-ping. Explaining Tsang's remarks in the policy address, a government official involved in the review, who declined to be named, said examples of the United States, Britain and Australia would be drawn upon. In these countries, talented individuals were granted unpaid leave by their employers to take up government appointments. 'It's not something mandatory. You can't require a university, a company or a think tank to take back the person after he or she steps down from the government,' Cheung said. 'In the US, people talk about the revolving door all the time. It's by practice, not by government requirements. So long as there are corporates willing to take back staff after government service, this can happen anywhere in Hong Kong. In a sense there is already a revolving door.' He said it was inevitable Hong Kong would move towards a US-style mechanism, as the chief executive had a growing need to look beyond the civil service for his team in the course of the city's democratisation. As the president of the Hong Kong Institute of Education and a co-founder of a local think-tank, SynergyNet, the Executive Councillor said whether a revolving door would attract more experts from the academia to join the politically appointed team would hinge on the establishment of such a culture. There was a need to narrow the gap between the administration and academics on the understanding of government work, he said. David Wong Yau-kar, president of the Chinese Manufacturers' Association of Hong Kong, one of the city's major business groups with increasing political prominence, said he agreed the government should look for more outside talents. 'The government is relying too much on career civil servants, so thoughts are quite narrow. In the past people considered being an administrative officer the only path for pursuing a career as a government official. It will be healthier to provide more flexibility for talents from outside to serve in the government,' he said. But Wong said he believed there was not much the business sector and companies could do collectively to export talents to the administration, as switching to a political career was a very personal decision. So Ping-chi, chairman of the Hong Kong Senior Government Officers Association, said he would not oppose government relaxation of the political appointment system, but cautioned that careful studies had to be conducted beforehand. 'For example, in my job at the Marine Department, I have seen many mainland marine officials who formerly worked at state-owned ship companies. Many other countries also have a revolving door practice,' he said. While a revolving door for civil servants was more controversial as it would raise questions about the political neutrality of the civil service, So suggested that such a system for people working in public institutions could be considered as a step towards further developing the appointment system. 'But the government must make everything transparent and not push reforms in a rush,' he warned. 'Otherwise, as in the launch of undersecretary positions two years ago, good policies may turn into bad ones.'