Rearing Our Own Sir Humphreys

All attention at the moment is focussed on the proposal by the incoming Chief Executive CY Leung to spend $72 million per year to provide for four new Minister level posts and their supporting staff.

Given the controversy over the justification and cost, and speculation over whether the package can be endorsed by the self-imposed deadline of 1 July, it is natural for this subject to grab the headlines.

But lurking under the surface is another related matter, arguably every bit as important and urgent, to which hardly anyone is paying attention.

By the time we have direct elections in 2017, it is essential that we separate out the distinct roles of political appointees and civil servants. In other words we must create the politically neutral civil service we claim to already have, and put in place the structures and procedures to ensure the system can endure future changes of government.

The accountability system is already 10 years old, but relatively little has been done to make it function properly.

The plain fact is what we have now is a mess. Far too many senior civil servants see a Ministerial position as a promotion post which they can reasonably aspire to as the climax of their career. And far too many ministers fail to realise that they are responsible not just for making policy decisions, but also politically accountable for the outcome of those decisions.

The first step should be to separate civil servants – including in particular the members of the Administrative Officer Grade – from all political activity.

They should no longer lobby LegCo Members to support government policies or proposals. This work should be the exclusive responsibility of the Policy Secretaries, the Undersecretaries and the Political Assistants.

Civil servants could continue to attend LegCo panel meetings but only in support of the political appointees and not to speak on their behalf. They should speak only to provide Members with factual information and only at the request of the political appointee leading the team.

Similarly in dealing with the media and attendance at public forums, the public face and voice of the government should be the political appointee, not the civil servant. Far too often at present the voice at the press conference or on the radio defending a particular decision belongs to a civil servant.

What credibility will that person have if the decision is reversed by the new administration taking office after an election?

To ensure that civil servants do not compromise their political neutrality, or give the impression that they might be (as some did in the recent election campaign), former directorate officers should be banned from taking up any political appointment for at least three years after retirement.

Ministers need to understand that they have a duty to consider whether the civil service has the capability and resources to execute a particular policy before making the political decision. For this reason, they remain politically accountable even if the policy failed partly because of poor execution.

Once the fundamental decision has been taken to clearly demarcate the different roles, a number of consequences flow.

It follows, for example, that the Head of the Civil Service should be a civil servant and not a political appointee. This person should be responsible for all line management matters including promotions, succession planning and so on.

The post of Secretary for the Civil Service can be abolished: policy responsibility for civil service matters can rest with the Chief Secretary or his deputy.

Political appointees would no longer be appraising or countersigning officers for civil servants' performance appraisals.

Since the Head of the Civil Service is a civil servant, he would remain in place when a new Chief Executive is elected and could be responsible for providing support to the incoming CE-elect.

Another consequence would be the treatment of civil service advice. The role of civil servants is to give honest, evidence-based, impartial advice to political appointees. This advice should remain confidential.

The role of the Ministers is to make the final decision, whether in accordance with civil service advice or otherwise, and accept political responsibility for the outcome. They, with the support of the other political appointees, should also be responsible for drawing up the strategy for securing support for the decision from LegCo and the wider community.

The TV series Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister are comedies. But the matters which they raise have serious implications for Hong Kong’s future irrespective of who the Chief Executive is and the number of Ministers he has. They require changes to long established practices and mindsets.

The sooner we get to grips with them the better.