Powerful but faceless bureaucrats must be kept in check

Permanent Secretary for Development Bernadette Linn is but one example of a civil servant who is getting too big to simply ignore

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 June, 2018, 2:43am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 July, 2018, 5:31pm

Bureau secretaries and the chief executive rightly draw flak for unpopular or misguided policies. However, that means powerful but faceless bureaucrats often get away scot-free.

Most people probably don’t know Bernadette Linn Hon-ho, the permanent secretary for development, too well. But you should.

The government wants another multimillion-dollar study on the management of the harbourfront promenades. To be conducted over two years, it aims to cover management models for different areas, including cooperation with non-governmental groups and private companies, as well as examples from overseas.

Plan for new harbourfront study sparks anger of advisers

This is despite the Harbourfront Commission having already spent six years studying the same issues concerning the city’s scenic 73km waterfront, including having a central authority in charge.

There is public money aplenty from HK$500 million earmarked for the enhancement of the harbourfront, but this sounds like a complete waste of time and money.

 How about just read what you already have on file, albeit left on the back burner?

No wonder many commission members are peeved. But Linn feigned surprise, saying the government had thought the commission had already endorsed the study.

“But if members have second thoughts, we are prepared to review,” she said, adding the bureau would keep an open mind.

It’s a case of she said, they said: “But you already approved it.” “No, we didn’t.”

That is a lot like her response to scathing criticism by the Ombudsman in 2016, when she was the director of lands. Her department was found granting leases and charging token rents, year after year in some cases, to illegal occupiers of government land, often in the New Territories, with no penalty. Talk about legitimising illegal behaviour. And people wonder why the government has problems recovering New Territories sites for housing development.

Linn said she was surprised and hurt – hurt! – by the “misunderstanding” and that there needed to be a public discussion on this perfectly justified government practice moving forward.

Carrie Lam changes plan for HK$10 billion waterfront body

And what about last year, when the government auditor found the city’s regulation of charities to be lax and full of loopholes? Some charities were able to maintain their tax-free status while profitably running hotels, rental flats and commercial offices, and paying senior executives high fees.

But Linn, still at the Lands Department, said there was little the government could do if charities had followed land grant conditions. How about cutting or reducing their public subsidies?

I don’t want to pick on individual civil servants, but Linn is getting big and powerful enough to warrant public attention.