Press Release

 Email this articleGovernment Homepage

CS' speech at "Letter to Hong Kong"


Following is the speech delivered by the Chief Secretary for Administration, Mr Donald Tsang, at "Letter to Hong Kong" on RTHK Radio 3 this morning (October 14):

Just four days ago, the Chief Executive, Mr Tung Chee Hwa, delivered his fifth Annual Policy Address to the Legislative Council. Since then, the airwaves and newspaper columns have been filled with the public debate on issues arising from the speech - everything from housing and employment to care for the elderly.

I want to focus today on just one aspect of Mr Tung's address because it has far-reaching implications for governance in Hong Kong. I refer to the Chief Executive's thinking on the introduction of a so-called accountability system into the way we are governed.

What exactly does this mean? Surely the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government is already accountable? Indeed it is. Under the Basic Law, we have an-executive-led government that is accountable to the legislature.

But the ideas set out by Mr Tung last Wednesday take this process an important step forward. He visualized a system more attuned to the notion of Hong Kong People Running Hong Kong. The existing arrangements owe more to our colonial past than to the high degree of autonomy we enjoy under One Country Two Systems.

What Mr Tung has suggested is the introduction of a new system of appointment for the top echelon of government officials - Chief Secretary, the Financial Secretary, the Secretary for Justice and most Bureau Directors, or what we used to call Policy Secretaries.

This is a significant move and, in my view, a change for the better. The proposal should be seen in the context of the developments that have taken place since the Handover four and a half years ago.

With Hong Kong people running Hong Kong, the community has come to expect a lot more from senior officials. There is a demand for a higher level of accountability. People feel 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. This is entirely understandable.

At present, the top three Secretaries and Directors of Bureaux are permanent civil servants. As such, they are held responsible for administrative and managerial mishaps, and for personal misconduct. They are subject to a well-established civil service appointment, management and disciplinary system.

But there is increasing pressure for top civil servants to assume political responsibility for the success or failure of their policies.

This is not appropriate under the present employment terms for civil servants. It would, in any event, undermine the political neutrality of our civil service system which is one of the cornerstones of Hong Kong's success.

At the same time, I am acutely conscious of the rapidly expanding workload of my senior colleagues as their roles have become less administrative and more political. In the past four years, the intensity, complexity and volume of their work have increased exponentially.

Their tasks involve not only policy formulation in the politically neutral sense. They must also argue for their proposals in a partisan legislature, promote and defend them through the media and interface with the public. The sheer volume of this work is becoming insurmountable. It is time to take steps to address the situation.

Introducing a new system of appointment for the senior officials outside the civil service is a logical way to proceed. Under the Chief Executive's proposals, the top three Secretaries and most Directors of Bureaux will be public officials rather than civil servants as we understand the term in Hong Kong.

They will be appointed on the nomination of the Chief Executive and will be responsible to him. They comprise a new political decision-making layer which, at a stroke, will also have the effect of preserving the neutrality of the civil service.

Such a system would provide greater flexibility in filling these positions with suitable candidates identified from both within the civil service and the private sector. Their roles, powers and responsibilities vis-a-vis civil servants will be clearly defined.

In practice, policy formulation and political responsibility will fall to the three Secretaries and Directors of Bureaux, whereas public administration and managerial responsibility will fall to civil servants. This is the system that operates in most democratic countries.

The three Secretaries and Directors of Bureaux will be appointed to the Executive Council - our highest policy-making body. This will enable them to take part collectively in a more conventional Cabinet-style system where policy is decided; priorities relating to policy and legislative initiatives are set; and the allocation of government resources as a whole are made.

In this setting, they will be able to see how their proposals interlock with those of other Principal Officials, and will make for better coordination of decisions that cut across different policy and operational areas of the government.

More important, all of this will place the Principal Officials in a better position to interact and cooperate with members of the legislature, and to secure their support.

Under these arrangements, Principal Officials will have to shoulder full political responsibility for their respective portfolios, for better or for worse. There would certainly be every incentive for them to listen to the public's views more carefully; consider them positively; ensure that their policies are in tune with public sentiments; and see that the delivery of services meets with public approval.

Unlike permanent civil servants, the term of office of these officials will not exceed that of the Chief Executive who nominates their appointment. This will have the advantage of concentrating their minds to achieve optimal results before the end of their term of office.

In the unfortunate and, I hope, unlikely event of any grave mishaps, the harsh glare of public scrutiny will come into play. The new system will provide the necessary flexibility for timely and appropriate remedial measures to be taken.

It will also help to minimize the risk of politicizing the civil service. It will ensure that the integrity of the civil service management system is maintained and that the strengths of a permanent professional, neutral and meritocratic civil service are preserved.

With this unambiguous division of responsibilities, I am confident that the culture of enhanced accountability will not only be strengthened at the senior echelons of government but will permeate down the hierarchy and throughout the civil service. It will bring a new approach to policy-making; a more responsive and responsible government; and a greater degree of accountability. This can only be good for Hong Kong.

End/Sunday, October 14, 2001


Email this article