Motion on “Reforming the Civil Service Sytem to Enhance government Effectiveness” (2022.06.01)

MR CHAN KIN-POR (in Cantonese): Thank you, President, before Hong Kong’s return to the Motherland, our civil service was reputed as one of the best civil service team in the world, globally renowned for being clean and honest, highly efficient and professional. However, 25 years after Hong Kong’s return to the Motherland, the civil service is not what it used to be and is often questioned by the public and the media. I believe there is something wrong with the system, which has been seriously distorted, causing civil servants to work passively. Therefore, the discussion today targets the system but not civil servants.

The civil service system in Hong Kong was introduced from the United Kingdom during the British Administration of Hong Kong, and the training of civil servants had to be rigorous, and everything had to be done according to procedures and by the book. The pace of society was slower back then, and as the British had rich governance experience and there were far fewer political disputes than after Hong Kong’s return to the Motherland, the civil service system worked very well. At the time of Hong Kong’s return to the Motherland, in order to ensure a smooth transition, the SAR Government adopted the entire civil service system, which has not been significantly reformed until today; yet, the overall environment has drastically changed, resulting in a lot of corrupt practices.

As a matter of fact, since the beginning of information explosion, civil servants have been unable to keep abreast of the times by adhering to procedures and doing everything by the book. They have inevitably become inflexible and perfunctory, merely minding their own business and work in their own silos. Therefore, we often hear the Government talk about setting up interdepartmental working groups, which reflects that it is difficult for different departments to work together properly and pressure has to be exerted by high-ranking officials. In addition, civil servants follow procedures when they work; so long as they strictly follow procedures in doing everything, they do not have to bear major responsibilities for the success or failure of the work. As a result, civil servants are not motivated to perform well.

On the other hand, the current civil service system is a de facto lifelong system where nobody can break their “rice bowls” as long as they do not make mistakes. As a result, civil servants do not try to accomplish anything but they just try to avoid making mistakes. Eventually, civil servants only need to hide under the system and protect themselves well so that they can work until retirement without a fuss. Even worse, in order to protect themselves, some civil servants have created more systems and made up different excuses or have beaten around the bush so as to shirk responsibilities.

An official once complained to me that since he enthusiastically wanted to do something for the public, he “begged” other departments to cooperate, hoping that all of them would make greater effort together; yet, he did not make it happen. Moreover, in the fight against the epidemic, we noticed that many civil servants, especially responsible officials, were mostly dedicated, and they worked hard day and night but there was often chaos when it came to the frontline’s turn. For example, there were mistakes and omissions at the early stages of restriction-testing declaration operations, which reflected that it was difficult for different frontline departments to cooperate fully under the current system. We are well aware of these shortcomings today. In the past, the Government was unable to reform because the opposition camp had obstructed its governance for a long time but now that Hong Kong has favourable political and human conditions, it is time to carry out fundamental reforms; otherwise, Hong Kong will not have good prospects.

I support the motion proposed by Mr Dominic LEE today. I believe that introducing performance indicators, linking promotion to performance and simplifying the mechanism for termination of service will lead to clear reward and punishment, which will naturally create a civil service culture of striving to perform. While it is important to follow procedures, I believe that the only solution is to require civil servants to assume due responsibilities while following the reasonable instructions of their supervisors, and sincerely cooperate with other departments, no longer merely minding their own business.

Lastly, I would like to remind the SAR Government not to underestimate the difficulty of reform, and the biggest difficulty is how to implement a reform. I believe that after the Government’s lobbying and gaining the support of the community, most civil servants will understand what is right and wrong. But after all, the civil service is a huge establishment and we cannot rule out the possibility that some civil servants or groups will challenge the Government in court on the grounds that the system is protected under the Basic Law. Therefore, the Government should be well-prepared, including the need to fully communicate and negotiate with trade unions and other organizations, and to seek the understanding of the civil service at large. To proceed smoothly, every step must be taken carefully. Thank you, President.

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