Policy unit being put back in its place

Carrie Lam’s promised revamp of the Central Policy Unit is being billed as making it an outlet for young people to have a greater say in government policies. Under her predecessor, the unit was criticised as being a human resources department for hiring cronies and paying them top dollar. Hopefully, that has changed

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 October, 2017, 1:30am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 October, 2017, 1:30am

As government reorganisation goes, it’s putting old wine in a new bottle.

Revamping the Central Policy Unit was part of Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s election platform. Billing the new unit as an outlet for young people to have a greater say in government policy is no doubt a public relations exercise. But as a programme to identify potential talent and groom them for government work, it may be seen as an extension of the appointee system for political assistants.

Indeed, as it has been announced this week, a senior researcher at the revamped unit will be paid about the same as a top-paid political assistant – just under HK$100,000 per month. The appointee system was heavily criticised from the start because it paid so much for novices with little or no experience in politics and public administration; one assistant was once paid HK$163,960 a month on the understanding that she had to give up her job with an investment bank. Appointees’ pay is now capped at HK$100,000.

Bumper pay packets up for grabs at Carrie Lam’s new think tank as Hong Kong leader lures young talent

It’s better to have novices doing government research than letting them mess with actual policy.

Meanwhile, Lam’s overhaul may also be seen as an attempt to de-emphasise the unit’s ideological work that was made part of its mission by its previous director Shiu Sin-por. Instead of more neutral research, the combative Shiu made it clear the unit was there to help the government sway public opinion and fight the opposition.

Lam had previously criticised the unit when she said she had no idea what went on there. Even worse was that under her predecessor Leung Chun-ying, the unit had been accused of being a human resources department for hiring cronies. Regardless of whether the accusation was justified, there is no denying that its former full-time adviser, Sophia Kao Ching-chi, had played a key role in recommending appointments to official advisory bodies.

That role presumably has ended with Kao’s departure.

In her policy address, Lam said 20 to 30 young people would be hired to join the revamped unit, so they “can gain experience in public administration and the voices of young people can be heard at senior levels of government”. Not all of them will be paid top dollar. A policy research officer will get a more reasonable HK$30,000 to HK$48,000 a month.

The unit was never meant to be a power centre; it’s being put back in its place.