It’s easy to blame the civil service for being inflexible. But that’s like criticising the Pope for being Catholic. By definition, it is a bureaucracy; its purpose is to execute policies and directives, not to come up with them. That responsibility goes to the bureau secretaries and their deputies, and their bosses, the chief secretary and chief executive. But when a policy is badly formulated, no skill or execution, however competent, can save it. Chief executive-elect John Lee Ka-chiu and his campaign manager Tam Yiu-chung have been playing “good cop, bad cop” as they prepare for civil service reform. Tam has publicly rounded on the civil service. “Many departments are being criticised for a lack of coordination and how they fell short of public expectations,” he said. “Calling for changes is difficult as civil servants may have got very used to the current culture.” Tam has especially singled out the performance of the government during the pandemic. Actually, the government, and by extension, the civil service, performed well in the first four waves of the pandemic, having kept cases and fatalities among the lowest anywhere in the world. It was the latest fifth wave when it seriously failed. While there were hiccups and inadequacies in performance among frontline workers, the public health failure fell squarely on those in charge of the zero-Covid policy that was clearly not zero Covid. When people blame the government, they are attacking the leadership, or the lack thereof, rather than those who have had to carry out the day-to-day administration. As Lee has identified livelihood issues in housing, education and social inequality as deep-seated issues that must be resolved, it goes without saying that the relevant departments and bureaus need to be reformed to be fit for purpose again. But that has less to do with the rank and file than with those at the top. Unfortunately, the government is caught up in a Catch-22 situation. Those who have risen through the ranks to the top – often the so-called elite administrative officers – know all about the machinery of government but not the sectors of society they have to administer and serve. But there is a dearth of available outside talent; to make them accountable for policy failures will make it even harder for future recruitment. Lee should focus on coming up with good policies and selling them to the public. Good execution will follow naturally.