More hands needed to deal with Hong Kong livelihood issues

Plan by Carrie Lam to hire another 5,400 civil servants must be seen against the thousands of jobs lost over the years and her welfare, health care and education commitments

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 October, 2017, 1:01am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 October, 2017, 1:01am

When Tung Chee-hwa became our first chief executive, the lifelong businessman was set on shrinking the civil service. Now that Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor is in power, the career bureaucrat is bent on expanding it. The real question is, do we want a bigger or smaller civil service?

The latest plan is to expand the bureaucracy by 3 per cent, or roughly 5,400 workers. Even so, there will still be fewer staff than in 2000, and there is no guarantee it won’t generate more inefficiency and waste.

However, it must be seen in the context of drastic shrinkage under Tung, whose policy had been a disaster and cause of much misery.

There were around 198,000 civil servants in 2000. By 2007, there were 161,000. Tung chose financial stringency and austerity. It was claimed to be a necessary response to the Asian financial crisis, but actually fitted well with the mindset of the then business and government elites.

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But as economist Leo Goodstadt observed, “austerity budgets, civil service redundancies and wage cuts, all aggravate deflation when the economy goes into recession”.

Among the most affected was the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department whose workforce was reduced from around 16,900 in 2000 to 11,000 in 2007. It currently has about 11,200 staff.

That drastic reduction was made possible by hiring contractors who exploited cleaners to such an outrageous extent that Tung’s successor Donald Tsang Yam-kuen was forced to introduce the first minimum wage for cleaners and security guards.

Civil servants overseas are often seen as useless bureaucrats, but in Hong Kong, they enjoy a better reputation. In one survey, they rank third, just after doctors and teachers, but ahead of politicians and policy bureau chiefs. This makes sense: the civil service hasn’t suffered from a lack of political legitimacy that the policymaking part of the government has.

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Our civil service still delivers reasonably efficient services and has been ranked fourth most efficient in a global competitiveness survey by the World Economic Forum.

The perception of falling performance after 1997, according to University of Hong Kong political scientist John Burns, has more to do with heightened public expectations than actual decline.

Among 251 new initiatives under Lam are renewed focus on livelihood issues ranging over welfare, health care and education. They certainly need more manpower to administer. The goal is to get the most bang for a buck.