SCMP Friday, February 16, 2001

Our entrenched civil service


The unexpectedly early retirement of Chief Secretary for Administration Anson Chan Fang On-sang has highlighted a little-discussed problem with our post-1997 political structure: namely, whether her successor can have a term of office any longer than that of the Chief Executive who nominates the person.
In other words, can the new Chief Secretary serve beyond the end of Tung Chee-hwa's first term on June 30, 2002?
Although Mr Tung is widely expected to seek a second term and, if he does, to be re-elected, this is still a question that needs to be clarified. In fact, the same question also applies to all the policy secretaries and other principal officials appointed since 1997.
In colonial days, Hong Kong did not have a rule on overhauling our team of senior officials whenever we had a new governor. Although a limited amount of reshuffling did sometimes occur soon after a new governor arrived, the need to do so was less apparent because British policy towards Hong Kong and its internal governing philosophy were quite stable. There was little change over the years. Nor was there any set rule about how long a colonial governor should serve, although there was an implicit term of about five years.
But under the Basic Law, the office of Chief Executive has a clear set term of service for five years and a limit of serving two terms, if re-elected. More importantly, he or she is elected through a political process. So it is possible, although far from certain, that the incoming Chief Executive could have a very different governing philosophy to his predecessor.
The right to form his own team is essential for every Chief Executive in order to put his political platform into practice. And it is implicit in the Basic Law that the team of senior officials he nominates should have a term of office concurrent with their Chief Executive. Otherwise, the next Chief Executive's right to form his own team would be compromised, so making a mockery of Article 48(5) of the Basic Law, which stipulates that the Chief Executive has the power to nominate senior officials.
Theoretically, senior civil servants only serve at the pleasure of the Chief Executive. They are, in form, appointed by the sovereign government and can be removed at any time upon the suggestion of the Chief Executive.
The irony is that the positions of senior officials are mostly filled by career civil servants. Not only do they lack any fixed term of office but, if removed, comparable positions have to be found to accommodate them. This civil service regulation makes it practically impossible to change the team of senior civil servants when a new Chief Executive comes into office.
The upcoming government effort to reform our system of senior officials appointments by introducing an accountability system should take this issue into consideration and lay out a workable solution which is consistent with the Basic Law.
No matter what changes are made, the civil service will continue to be the main source of talent to fill the top echelons of government for a long time to come. But the Government itself is aware of the problem of inbreeding and is making efforts to give junior officials broader experience by seconding them to work in private organisations for training.
More interchange of talents between the private and public sectors is inevitable. Other than the commercial sector, academic, public service and political organisations can all be alternative and supplementary sources of talent to join the senior official team. This change is inevitable but should be introduced gradually.
Shiu Sin-por is Executive Director of the One Country, Two Systems Research Institute.