Actual work experience is still no substitute for playing the system within the Hong Kong civil service
HK’s undersecretaries disrupt the relationship between civil servants, adding another swathe of names to the email circulation
The traditional picture of a British administrator in Hong Kong is of an old buffer puffing wine bubbles along Chater Road after a heavy lunch in a convivial environment. That merely served as an interlude between planning his next leave in the morning and using his secretary to book a tee off time in the afternoon. But they were professionals.
You may well laugh – but think of his background. He was possibly ex military, ex-top university and of middle class background in Britain.
He had an adventurous spirit, or indeed the last of several generations in the colonies. He had a lot of experience and a long career in the system so he could get things done.
He was rarely a specialist – nor an expert in anything. Indeed he prided himself on being a generalist, but in his (occasionally her) department, whether health, education, security, or housing; he often engaged in that specialisation with a boyish enthusiasm.
This was mainly to get brownie points for his next promotion. If he was too much of an old soak, and enjoyed Wan Chai too much, he would rarely be promoted too far – though sadly one or two were.
The best part was that once a senior government civil servant reached 55 they were packed off to old Blighty to give some other Buggins a turn. It meant that there was an influx of new blood – most of it productive and useful. If not, it was a mere three years or so before they were exiled into retirement when (hopefully) someone more energetic and ambitious would take over.
Once you got to Deputy Secretary level, you could have had 20-25 years in government knowing how to get results from the system. This is more important than being a specialist because your skill at getting policies through the machine was critical to the success of your department – and your career.
Contrast that imperfect but working system to today’s not working system as epitomised by the announcement this week of no less than 10 undersecretaries and eight political assistants to the Hong Kong government.
These purely political appointments sit below the (politicised) secretary/cabinet level and are separate from the permanent secretaries, who are the civil servant bosses actually responsible for the work. In theory, undersecretaries allow political secretaries time to make politics (aka interfere). As we know, if you are the boss, you have the power to screw up the efforts of professional civil servants – or make them so terrified they can’t make decisions.
It is not clear if undersecretaries are expected to do a day’s work, except to carry the boss’ bag, but (joy unbounded!) they have political assistants below them to carry their bag. It just shows that the political classes in charge of the budget can breed like rabbits (although that analogy is out of place in Hong Kong where articles headlined “property” are more widely read than those headlined with the word “sex”).
Undersecretaries often have little relevant experience in governing. The better-experienced have served in the relevant department in government or industrial sector but too many are seriously short of real experience. Working in a bank does not qualify you to work in Financial Services and Treasury. Administering a hospital may give you a heart for health, but it does not provide the skills to work around the system to get your policies signed off.
Undersecretaries are an expensive luxury, designed to provide a reward for political service and a route for ambitious and aspiring secretaries to higher orders. There are better and cheaper ways for Government to dispense political favours; a committee, enquiry, quango or NGO.
Undersecretaries disrupt the relationship between civil servants and the secretary, adding another swathe of names to the email circulation. Policy secretaries would be better off served by a seconded professional from the department concerned to carry his bag.
In fairness, the system is not much different from other Western administrations; Britain included, but these other places are whole countries. We are just one city.
Perhaps “one country, two systems” inspires our leaders to delusions of grandeur. Most cities are run by a mayor and an Urban Council, and can’t afford layers of unnecessary, highly-paid politicians.
It is not enough to be political to govern. The old buffers knew that experience within the system was the way to get things done; something Donald Trump is discovering in the US. They can be consoled, however, that because today’s retirement age is much more fluid, once appointed, they can go on and on. No puffing along Chater Road for them – it’s the government limousine for these professionals.
Richard Harris is a veteran investment manager, banker, writer and broadcaster – and financial expert witness.