Se­crets of our govt sec­re­taries

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - HKCOMMENT - AL­BERT LIN The au­thor is Op-Ed ed­i­tor of China Daily Hong Kong Edi­tion. al­bertlin@chi­nadai­

When the Hong Kong gov­ern­ment in­tro­duced the sec­re­tary sys­tem in the 1970s to pro­vide an ex­tra level of over­sight re­gard­ing the ac­tiv­i­ties of all of its de­part­ments, the aim was to in­crease ef­fi­ciency by get­ting things done faster and bet­ter. The new sys­tem was in­tro­duced af­ter a painstak­ing sur­vey of the work­load of the civil ser­vice, es­pe­cially those hold­ing the most se­nior po­si­tions. Af­ter many months, a re­port was is­sued find­ing that in­deed the civil ser­vice hi­er­ar­chy was un­der the heav­i­est imag­in­able pres­sure, and the so­lu­tion was to halve the work­load and cut through all the red tape by plac­ing sec­re­taries at the top of the pile.

Pre­vi­ously, each depart­ment had been run by a di­rec­tor re­spon­si­ble both for its poli­cies and op­er­a­tions. In gen­eral, each di­rec­tor was aided by a deputy and a cou­ple of as­sis­tant di­rec­tors.

As it was ex­plained at the time, the sec­re­taries would in fu­ture look af­ter the prob­lems of pol­icy and other lofty mat­ters while the di­rec­tors would over­see the nuts-and-bolts of each depart­ment’s daily op­er­a­tions.

What ac­tu­ally hap­pened was of course that the depart­ment di­rec­tors were bumped up to fill the va­cant posts of sec­re­taries, their deputies moved into the di­rec­tors’ chairs, another as­sis­tant di­rec­tor was added to each depart­ment’s higher ech­e­lons to “en­sure proper bal­ance was main­tained”, and the faces of all con­cerned were cov­ered in ear-to-ear smiles, the new sys­tem hav­ing brought juicy pro­mo­tions for many.

In his sec­ond term af­ter the han­dover, then chief ex­ec­u­tive Tung Chee-hwa ap­par­ently lost pa­tience with some hide-bound sec­re­taries seem­ingly more in­ter­ested in civil ser­vice rules than in per­form­ing the du­ties of very se­nior mem­bers of the HKSAR’s broader, semi-po­lit­i­cal re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. Tung changed the rules to bring in po­lit­i­cally-ap­pointed sec­re­taries, ex­plain­ing that the pur­pose was to in­stall in th­ese highly re­spon­si­ble po­si­tions not po­lit­i­cally neu­tral ca­reer civil ser­vants, but po­lit­i­cal ap­pointees. Th­ese re­place­ments were cho­sen by Mr Tung him­self ei­ther from within or out­side the civil ser­vice.

Ex­cept, as things turned out, th­ese in­com­ing “out­siders” weren’t re­place­ments at all. They be­came fully fledged ad­di­tional sec­re­taries.

So what at first ap­peared to be a slap in the face for the bu­reau­crats some­how be­came a nice lit­tle ar­range­ment in­deed. It turned out that in the cosiest lit­tle ar­range­ment imag­in­able the orig­i­nal civil ser­vice po­si­tions for sec­re­taries were re­tained, and a sec­ond sec­re­tary ap­pointed, too. This ex­plains why in some cases bu­reaus have both a sec­re­tary and a per­ma­nent sec­re­tary — each, no doubt, but­tressed by an ar­mada of deputies, as­sis­tants and other back-up staff.

Pre­sum­ably the po­lit­i­cal ap­pointee han­dles sen­si­tive pol­icy is­sues with im­pli­ca­tions in­volv­ing Bei­jing while the per­ma­nent sec­re­tary looks af­ter the do­mes­tic pol­icy side of things.

Golly, was ef­fi­ciency ever ad­min­is­tered by the gov­ern­ment in such an overly gen­er­ous fash­ion?

Now let’s see how the sec­re­tary sys­tem is work­ing to­day. The Gov­ern­ment Sec­re­tariat now com­prises 13 pol­icy bu­reaus, all but three of them re­port­ing to Chief Sec­re­tary Car­rie Lam.

But what a mish­mash of re­spon­si­bil­i­ties is in­volved in most of Car­rie Lam’s bu­reaus. For ex­am­ple, by some unimag­in­able bu­reau­cratic sleight of hand the Hong Kong Ob­ser­va­tory comes un­der the Com­merce and Eco­nomic Bureau!

There’s another odd­ity in the um­brella be­neath which shel­ters Food and Health — be­sides ev­ery pos­si­ble mat­ter con­nected with the most im­por­tant sub­ject of food and health, we find the Agri­cul­ture, Fish­eries and Con­ser­va­tion Depart­ment has some­how been squeezed in at the bot­tom.

But surely no more odd cou­pling oc­curs in the gov­ern­ment roll call of re­spon­si­bil­ity than that of the Trans­port and Hous­ing Bureau. How on earth did th­ese two be­come hatched and matched, we ask? Ev­ery­thing else about its re­spon­si­bil­i­ties is cor­re­lated com­mon­sense — civil avi­a­tion, high­ways, trans­port and ma­rine — but then out of nowhere comes hous­ing.

Could this be why our hous­ing poli­cies ap­pear to be a train wreck – be­cause they’ve had a head-on col­li­sion with the Trans­port Depart­ment? Surely hous­ing would sit far more com­fort­ably un­der the De­vel­op­ment Bureau, which is re­spon­si­ble for the Build­ings, Lands, Plan­ning and Drainage Ser­vices De­part­ments?

In ar­guably the most in­ten­sively set­tled place on the globe, with 7 mil­lion peo­ple squeez­ing into work­places by day and homes (or bed­sits or cages) at night, so hous­ing should be right up there in an ap­pro­pri­ate bureau and not jammed in with trans­port as some sort of bu­reau­cratic af­ter­thought.

Mean­while, how has the sec­re­tary sys­tem im­proved gov­er­nance in Hong Kong? The civil ser­vice would no doubt point to Hong Kong’s enor­mous fi­nan­cial re­serves, and say, “Look what this gov­ern­ment has ac­com­plished for its peo­ple — what an ab­so­lutely won­der­ful fi­nan­cial nest-egg we’ve got put aside for a rainy day.”

Tell that to the pen­sion-less over-70s ek­ing out a mis­er­able life ev­ery day as they gather their trol­ley-loads of card­board boxes and old news­pa­pers in our dirty lanes.

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