SCMP Tuesday, March 6, 2001

Taking responsibility to higher levels


In his policy address last October, Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa announced that the Government would study ways of enhancing the accountability of principal officials. These officials are heads of policy bureaus and key departments, and are mostly civil servants employed on permanent and pensionable terms.
In the surprise announcement, Mr Tung laid down a one-year timetable for devising a compatible system of appointment for senior officials, clearly defining their powers and responsibilities in formulating and implementing government policies. Secretary for Constitutional Affairs Michael Suen Ming-yeung told the Legislative Council it was Mr Tung's idea, and that his bureau was now exploring ways of implementing it. Later this month, a government delegation will visit Australia and New Zealand to gather information.
The question of accountability of senior government officials was a hot topic last year when the public demanded the dismissal of senior housing officials following a spate of construction scandals in public-housing estates. Last June, a few days before Legco was to pass a motion of no confidence in the then chairman of the Housing Authority, Rosanna Wong Yick-ming, and Director of Housing Tony Miller, Ms Wong resigned. Mr Miller, however, stayed on. The administration said he was a civil servant and could not be forced to take political responsibility.
Last year, Legco also passed a motion urging the administration to move away from the current practice of appointing senior civil servants as policy secretaries. Instead, policy secretaries should be political appointees and could come from outside the civil service. If they make major mistakes, they should accept responsibility and resign.
It is not surprising Mr Tung wants to have the freedom to pick his own team and has seized upon Legco's motion as an excuse for change. However, it is illogical for Mr Tung to raise the question of political accountability without making any reference to the timetable for democratically electing the Chief Executive. Accountability and mandate are closely linked. As long as the Chief Executive is not democratically elected, one cannot honestly speak of political accountability to the people. Even if a system of accountability were to be set up for principal officials, Mr Tung has to state how he intends to take final responsibility for government policies and performance. Without that, people can be forgiven for thinking that the October proposal was a ploy to avoid taking responsibility for poor performance, by shifting the blame to his political appointees.
To some people, who had hoped the civil servants could act as a check on the unelected Chief Executive, the proposal to remove civil servants as policy secretaries is disturbing. There is no denying that the introduction of political appointment for policy secretaries may only serve to strengthen Mr Tung's control over the appointees, while adding little to the administration's accountability.
During last Saturday's Legco Constitutional Affairs Panel meeting, legislators were advised by university academics that a system of accountability should include legislation as well as a convention of co-operation between the executive and the legislature.
Under such a scenario, after being nominated by the Chief Executive, a candidate for a principal position would then have to be vetted by Legco. Although Article 15 of the Basic Law stipulates that principal officials are appointed by the central Government, this should not preclude Legco from scrutinising nominees.
The academics also suggested that a convention should be established whereby if Legco passes a motion of no confidence in a principal official, he should resign. These are controversial proposals and may not be what Mr Tung has in mind. However Mr Tung should understand the public is dissatisfied and expects the Chief Executive and his senior officials to be more accountable.
Mr Tung's refusal to dismiss his aide Andrew Lo Cheung-on last year - despite advice by top civil servants and vociferous demands from the public - has left a bitter aftertaste for many. Such intransigence also undermines the credibility of his proposal to set up a system of accountability for senior officials.
Mr Tung has so far produced no details on how such a system would be implemented, and the impression is that the proposal is a smoke screen. What he really wants is to get rid of argumentative policy secretaries and hire people who are loyal to him and the central Government. The recent appointment of banker Antony Leung Kam-chung as Financial Secretary is the beginning of this process. The public can expect more new faces in the upper echelon of the administration, but a meaningful system of accountability will probably not be forthcoming.
Emily Lau Wai-hing is a legislator and member of The Frontier.