Motion on “Reforming the Accountability System for Principal Officials” (2021.06.23)

MR CHAN KIN-POR (in Cantonese): President, the accountability system for principal officials (also known as the political appointment system) has already been implemented for 18 years, but it is generally rated poorly in the community. Certain individual accountability officials have been “attacked black and blue”, and some people have even ascribed all policy blunders to accountability officials. As a matter of fact, the accountability system is indeed plagued by structural problems. Now that Hong Kong’s political development has fully gotten back on track, I agree that it is now an opportune moment to introduce reforms.

Speaking of the accountability system, I think it is fair to say that it has been an easy target for criticism among opposition Members ever since the first day of its birth. The executive-led principle has merely existed in name only, and the Government has turned into a “hot kitchen” where accountability officials are virtually “defenceless against all sorts of attack” and can hardly attain any concrete achievements at all. In this environment with the prevalence of only humiliation without any appreciation, fewer and fewer people are willing to become accountability officials. So, while I admit that there are problems with the accountability system, it is also unfair to attribute all governance problems to the accountability system.

Some argue that accountability officials lack the enterprise in making visionary planning while also failing to resolve our deep-seated conflicts and achieve the objective of the accountability system. Prof LAU Siu-kai, who participated in taking forward the accountability system back then, once pointed out that the original intent of the accountability system was to enable the Chief Executive to build a governance team comprising like-minded individuals and form a ruling coalition consisting of pro-establishment figures, patriotic experts, academics and opinion leaders, and also various social sectors, and the Chief Executive might select any of them as accountability officials. He added that as they shared basic, common convictions, they could achieve policy coherence, and the officials so selected could be visionary in formulating policies.

But besides the failure to form any such ruling coalition, the conclusion of each term of government is instead often followed by a major changeover to the officials, so it is naturally difficult to achieve policy coherence. Furthermore, as officials do not dare to roll out long-term policies, it is understandably impossible to resolve our deep-seated conflicts. But now that we can see the administration of Hong Kong by patriots at long last, I hope the concept of a ruling coalition can be actualized gradually, so as to achieve the essence of the accountability system and encourage those with aspirations to join the Government.

Another problem with the accountability system is that while an accountability Bureau Director is the head of a relevant Policy Bureau, he nonetheless will not get involved in the personnel and career arrangements of civil servants, such as employment, promotion and disciplinary matters. Under the existing system, a Permanent Secretary is answerable to a corresponding accountability Bureau Director, but there is no subordinate relationship between civil servants and accountability officials. And, the Civil Service Code also stipulates that the relationship between the two is one of cooperation based on partnership. Civil servants are only accountable to their superiors in the civil service system, and an accountability Bureau Director is not involved in the personnel and career arrangements of civil servants. This system is actually quite awkward, in the sense that before the implementation of the accountability system, a Bureau Director had full management authority over the civil servants under him, whereas Bureau Directors under the existing accountability system have literally become “commanders without any soldiers”.

In fact, a merit of the civil service system is stability, but a shortcoming is that it is prone to conservatism. In contrast, the accountability system may bring new ideas into the Government. If the two systems can integrate with each other perfectly, the Government may achieve stability and innovation in implementing policies. But this existing cooperative relationship based on partnership must depend on good rapport between Bureau Directors and civil servants in order to be successful. From the management perspective, this exceptional system is prone to developing antagonism from both sides towards each other and triggering conflicts between accountability officials and civil servants. There were already such problems in the past, and they may occur in the days to come. In my view, such segregation of power is absolutely not conducive to governance, and the Government should explore ways to deal with it.

Finally, I wish to talk about Political Assistants. Many people consider that Political Assistants are also among accountability officials but of little practical use. The posts of Political Assistant were created back then for the purpose of providing Bureau Directors with political advice and evaluation. Their job nature should be more or less the same as that of political public relations personnel, and it should be a very important post. But somewhat inexplicably, many Political Assistant posts were filled by “political newbies” in the past, and this is tantamount to paying political newcomers a directorate-grade salary for the mere sake of training them. Perhaps, we have been misled by the title “Political Assistant”. So, it looks like the Government has discarded the work of political public relations in the end. No wonder the Government was totally defenceless when it “exchanged gunfire” with the opposition camp during its lobbying for public opinion support and policy promotion. This shows that the Government attaches no importance to political public relations.

For these reasons, the Government may consider the idea of renaming “Political Assistant” as a means to avoid misunderstanding, and inviting political, public relations or media talents with substantial experience to fill this post, so as to fulfil its due functions of conducting proper political analyses, evaluating public opinion trends, putting forth a direction for policy promotion, networking in the political sector, and so on.

Thank you, President.

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