Secrets of our govt secretaries
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.