Following is the speech by the Acting Chief Secretary for Administration, Mr Michael Suen, at the opening of the Public Sector Reform Conference at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre this afternoon (February 10)(English only):
Ladies and gentlemen,
Thank you all for taking time to participate in this important forum where we will freely discuss ideas on facilitating a more efficient and effective delivery of services to the public. But first, I would like to extend a traditional warm Hong Kong welcome to our international guests. I am sure that we will learn a lot from our visitors and, hopefully, they will be able to take back with them solutions or concepts they have picked up during this conference.
More than a century and a half ago, the Scottish-born English writer, Thomas Carlyle, made an astute observation when he wrote, "In the long-run every government is the exact symbol of its people, with their wisdom and unwisdom". I imagine every government around the world would find it very difficult to argue with his observation. But, over the next two days, I hope we will be able to take advantage of the collective 'wisdom' gathered here to see how we can improve on the way we go about our daily duties in government.
I believe bringing together business, community leaders and senior colleagues from within the government, clearly illustrates the importance we place on involving the whole community in how we manage government business to deliver high quality services to the public.
I know that I'm preaching to the converted when I say that we are proud of the fact that we are regarded as one of the world's most successful communities. Yes, we have had our share of problems over the past five or six years, the overall picture is still giving cause for optimism, not the least because of our institutional strengths as well as the reputation we have built up over the years in a number of areas.
We are one of the world's leading business centres; the world's freest economy for the past decade, and the world's most services-oriented economy. We are also regarded as one of the least corrupt cities in the world, and one of the safest. Not only with a low crime rate, but a secure environment in the current global situation. We have excellent communications infrastructure and excellent healthcare and social welfare services as well as high quality public housing.
I am pleased to say that these are the results of a government that works in partnership with the whole community in building Hong Kong as Asia's world city. And we can be justly proud of a civil service that has served the community well through challenging times. A civil service that is playing a critical role in meeting the needs and aspirations of the community, and one that has been held up as an example to others in the region and elsewhere in the world.
However, at a time of growing community expectations and increasing challenges in a changing society, we cannot be complacent. Indeed, as a government we need to be at the forefront in embracing change: setting the example for others to follow. That is why we are here today. One example of this was our ground-breaking management forum in August 2002, which was designed to elicit from stakeholders in the civil service ways in which we can create and realise our vision, which is still, "A world-class government for Asia's world city". After that very successful forum, I challenged each of the Heads of Department to build on the ideas generated at the forum by putting forward key initiatives for their departments to implement. I am pleased to report that more than 200 initiatives have been put in place, covering a wide range of government activities.
What we have started is a continuous process. Take for example, we recognise the need to address issues related to budget deficits. The Financial Secretary has set targets for balancing the budget and for limiting the proportion of GDP spending on public services. We have frozen the recruitment of civil servants and we have introduced staff reduction targets designed to bring us back to the staffing levels of a decade ago. We also face growing community expectations of enhanced service quality and accountability. We must meet the challenges and advantages presented by the further opening up of trade, tourism and immigration in the Mainland. And we must respond to community concerns about employment, education, and livelihood issues. All this means we must seize opportunities to innovate and to change the way in which public services are delivered.
In other words, we are defining a blueprint for those changes and institutional reforms. This blueprint consists of four major elements: managing people and organisations; financial management; harnessing technology and private sector involvement.
In managing people and organisations, we must look for increased flexibility. Individuals and departments must both accept that we cannot just do things in a certain manner because that is the way it has always been done. We need to empower more; to encourage initiative and reward performance; and give line managers the right to manage.
Our financial management must be based on knowing and controlling the full costs of all projects and programmes. The introduction of accrual accounting is already a big step forward, but we need to do more. For example, allocating budgets to consuming departments and having inter-departmental charging for services rendered between departments will help eliminate waste and ensure that spending is focused on where it is most needed.
In harnessing technology, we should provide more convenient electronic access to Government services. We need to build on our initial successes, such as ESD life, the integrated call centre that handles enquiries and complaints, and the smart ID card. We must use technology to provide better service; and to see that our back-office operations are efficient and cost-effective.
As for the private sector, I am pleased that we have made good progress in encouraging more private sector involvement in the delivery of public services. Over the last two years outsourcing has doubled, and we are currently pursuing a number of privatisation and public/private partnership opportunities. Such opportunities are mutually beneficial. They ensure the government remains small and benefits from private sector innovation and management.
Public sector reform is not just about cutting costs and tackling deficits. It is about optimising the use of scarce resources to deliver the best available public services. We in government are dedicated to ensuring that the resources entrusted to us are well managed and wisely used. We owe that to the people of Hong Kong.
The theme of this forum is "Changing the Face of Government - Making it Happen". Hong Kong doesn't have a mortgage on this - governments throughout the world are also making it happen. They have made, and continue to make, radical changes. We are privileged to have with us today four highly qualified and experienced practitioners from the US, the UK and Australia. They will tell us how they and their governments tackle the many problems they face in their respective public sector reform.
I am not suggesting that we should simply follow what others have done because circumstances are different. You will have the opportunity in the Q & A sessions to explore the applicability of the overseas experiences to Hong Kong. I am sure that you will be able to learn from the experience of our friends from overseas, and that you will find this both rewarding and challenging.
Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to wish the conference every success.
Ends/Tuesday, February 10, 2004