Shake up of Hong Kong’s ministerial system proposed

Think tank calls for expert advisers to replace political assistants, exams for prospective undersecretaries and extra pay for ministers

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 March, 2017, 8:03pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 March, 2017, 8:00am

Hong Kong’s ministerial system should be overhauled by tightening rules on the hiring of undersecretaries and replacing political assistants with expert advisers, former Legislative Council president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing proposed.

He said the two tiers of appointees had failed to fully demonstrate their value.

The Principal Officials Accountability System was introduced in 2002 to attract talent from outside the government, with policy bureau secretaries, or ministers, turned from civil service to political appointee posts.

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It was expanded in 2007 by adding tiers of undersecretaries and political assistants to help ministers through policy explanation and lobbying.

But critics say the system failed and argue the three tiers of appointees are not accountable to the public and are less capable than the top civil servants – known as permanent secretaries – in their respective bureaus.

The undersecretaries and political assistants failed to fully demonstrate their value
Kay Lam Chi-yan, Hong Kong Vision

Unveiling a five-pronged strategy of reform, Tsang, convenor of the Policy Research Institute’s Hong Kong Vision programme, also suggested further increasing the salaries of ministers to encourage permanent secretaries to take up the posts, requiring appointees to hold town hall sessions regularly, and cutting the number of non-official members in the Executive Council to reduce ministers’ reliance on them in making policy decisions.The programme’s key researcher, Kay Lam Chi-yan, said: “The undersecretaries and political assistants failed to fully demonstrate their value.The political assistants’ status and power were not recognised by various stakeholders [either].”

The programme proposed replacing the assistants with “special advisers” or policy experts to assist the minister, while undersecretaries would be hired after an interview and examination to be taken by interested senior civil servants, candidates with at least five years’ experience as special advisers, or those with at least 15 years of professional or managerial experience.

Currently, the recruitment criteria for undersecretaries are not as clear, as a five-member panel chaired by the chief executive hires officials after interviewing candidates and considering their “education background and work experience”.

On the issue of pay, the Legislative Council only recently approved a controversial increase for bureau chiefs from HK$298,115 a month to more than HK$335,000, starting from July.

Dismissing suggestions that it meant moremoney being wasted on incapable and unpopular officials, Tsang said: “We should think of ways to hire capable ministers who deserve their salary.

“The permanent secretaries should be an important source of ministers, and it is unreasonable if they need to take up more responsibilities as ministers without attractive pay.”

The salary of a permanent secretary was raised last year to around HK$265,750 to HK$273,700.

Tsang said the ministers and permanent secretaries’ pay should be kept at a difference of “a certain percentage”, but he declined to elaborate by how much.

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Asked to comment on Tsang’s proposals, a spokesman for chief executive candidate Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-Ngor said: “We welcome the think tank’s recommendations on ways to improve governance. To govern effectively, political appointees and different levels of civil servants must effectively interact and communicate with lawmakers, district councillors, professional bodies ... and the public.”

“The chief executive and ministers must also conduct district visits regularly to understand community affairs and the public sentiment,” he added.

Ministers need to recruit undersecretaries who can help and cooperate with them
Ivan Choy, Chinese University

A spokesman for Lam’s rival John Tsang Chun-wah’s campaign office declined to comment on the proposals while the third candidate Woo Kwok-Hing did not respond to the Post’s request for comment.

Chinese University political scientist Ivan Choy Chi-keung believed that Tsang’s proposals would help ministers to recruit assistants who could work in harmony with them, but he questioned if it was wise to create an exam for undersecretaries.

“It seems to be twisting the system into something similar to the civil service. Ministers need to recruit undersecretaries who can help and cooperate with them – this is not something you can assess objectively,” Choy told the Post.

Liberal Party member Jeremy Young Chit-on, who served as the secretary for education’s political assistant from 2008 to 2012, questioned if assistants needed to be replaced by expert advisers.

In a reference to architect turned minister Wong Kam-sing, Young said: “The kind of assistants needed really depends on each minister … The secretary for environment might need a policy expert to assist him, but if the minister is already an expert in the policy area, does he still need a special adviser?”