SCMP Thursday, October 12, 2000
Officials to be more accountable
Tung Chee-hwa promised to set up a comprehensive system to improve public accountability of senior officials in the wake of growing criticism of policy blunders.
In the section entitled "governance", Mr Tung said he was aware of calls to make senior officials accountable for the outcome of their policies.
"I have noted that the previous Legco and the community have expressed the view that as senior officials are involved in policy making and play a leading role in public affairs, they should be held accountable for the outcome of their policies. As Hong Kong people are now running Hong Kong, I appreciate their aspirations for the SAR Government to be subjected to a higher degree of accountability.
"I also agree that the SAR Government should respond seriously, undertake a thorough review, and make the system of accountability more complete," he said.
The issue was to be considered at two levels - principal officials and the remaining 190,000 civil servants. Mr Tung said the Government should examine how top officials' accountability for their departments could be improved.
There were a number of complicated issues, however. These included:
- The possibility of devising a compatible system of appointment for principal officials;
- Setting out their powers and responsibilities, and;
- Defining their role in formulating and implementing government policies under the new system.
Mr Tung said a decision would be taken as soon as possible.
The remaining civil servants would be subject to the existing disciplinary and investigation system.
Speaking after delivering his Policy Address, Mr Tung denied the SAR was moving towards a ministerial system, describing it only as a "senior officials accountability system".
"There have been voices in the community [to ask the administration] to make progress. It is sensible to request senior officials who play an important role in policy making process to be held more accountable."
But he did not respond to questions on whether officials who made mistakes would have to step down. A government source said the issue needed further study.
The source said three departments not responsible for policy making would be exempted: the Audit Commission, the SAR Office in Beijing and Information Co-ordinator Stephen Lam Sui-lung.
Chief Secretary for Administration Anson Chan Fang On-sang, Financial Secretary Donald Tsang Yam-kuen and Secretary for Justice Elsie Leung Oi-sie expressed support for the review.
A spokeswoman for Mrs Chan and Mr Tsang said the two would air their views in the study. Miss Leung said through her spokesman: "I have always emphasised the importance of keeping an open mind under the new constitutional order. Any efforts by the Government to improve the efficiency of governance will have my wholehearted support."
However, Senior Non-expatriate Officers' Association chairman Leung Chi-chiu was cautious about the proposal, saying it might deter senior officials from working hard. "We are not opposing the administration to enhance public accountability. But senior officials are not political appointments. They should not shoulder the responsibility for individual incidents regardless of the actual role they have played.
"It may only turn out to be the case that senior officials do less to prevent themselves from making mistakes," he said.
Cecilia So Chui-kuen, president of the Chinese Civil Servants' Association, said officials should not be politicised because they were only the ones to implement policies.
Professor Lau Siu-kai, of the Chinese University, described the proposal as inevitable and said it would be good for the Chief Executive and the civil service. "It will help improve the morale of the civil service as they can now be free from political consideration after their seniors are supposed to shoulder the political responsibility," he said.
Executive Councillor Rosanna Wong Yick-ming welcomed the decision to review on accountability of the upper echelons.
Ms Wong resigned from the chairmanship of the Housing Authority shortly before Legco moved a no-confidence vote against her in June.