Administrative officers should get incentives to achieve good governance

In the words of Ian Scott, administrative officers (AOs), who are at the apex of the civil service, were at the peak of their influence and authority in local politics in 1990 (Ian Scott, Public Administration in Hong Kong (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish International (Singapore) Private Limited, 2003),p 73). Like diamonds, they sparkled and enjoyed a very high social status in the city. 

But unlike diamonds, their glistening shine is not forever. It’s more than obvious that AOs have suffered a reversal of fortune in the past few years. The leadership qualities of some AO-turned-principal-officials have failed to meet public expectations. To make matters worse, the central government might have questioned their loyalty because of their dubious attachment to British political values.

Leadership qualities are best tested at times of crisis. Then-chief executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, most of the principal officials, and senior AOs of relevant bureaus bore the brunt of criticism for their alleged failure to defuse the tense situation arising from the heated controversy over the extradition bill and quickly put down the “black-clad” riots in 2019. We are chilled to the bones at the terrible realization that there was a huge loophole in our laws on safeguarding national security before the promulgation of the National Security Law for Hong Kong in June 2020. What the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government had tried to do before the outbreak of the riot — and had in fact done successfully — was to irresponsibly delay the implementation of Article 23 of the Basic Law.

It also shows without the slightest room for doubt that the SAR government has failed to take effective measures to tackle the fifth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak. Chaos and confusion at hospitals, high infection and death rates, strict lockdowns, and business-unfriendly social distancing measures reflected a series of problems ranging from leadership and coordination to implementation. Public confidence in the AOs of relevant policy bureaus was thrown out of the window.

In spite of the mismatch between public expectations and the unsatisfactory performance of some AOs in the past few years, the composition of the new administrative team under John Lee Ka-chiu highlights an unassailable fact that AOs are still the backbone of the government. It’s worth noting that the new administrative team is united by a mission to make the best administrative decisions for the SAR, and safeguard national security, sovereignty and developmental interests. With a strong sense of responsibility, these principal officials also deserve credit for possessing professional knowledge and global perspective. Whether and to what extent these qualities could be shared by other AOs remain to be seen.

According to a study by Erik Chan and his fellow researchers, AOs lack a forward-looking mindset and they are overloaded by crises and emergencies every day (Erik Chan, Ivan Chu and Felix Choi, The Transition of Hong Kong Administrative Officer Grade and its Mismatch with the Public Expectation (HK; Sustainable Development Research Institute, 2013), pp 45 and 50). Unlike the principal officials of the new governing team, many AOs may either consciously or unconsciously downplay the importance of the goals shared by the new governing team. Because value systems die hard, some AOs may just want to get good pay, a secure retirement and a well-respected job.

It’s noteworthy that Meiji leaders had a mission to transform Japan into a strong and wealthy nation after the downfall of the bakufu in 1868. The shared goals were: industrialization, establishment of a national constitution and parliament, and external territorial expansion. They were shared goals among all politicians, officials and even people. While there were many political fights among Meiji leaders of Satsuma and Choshu, they fought only over the method and sequencing of achieving those goals. They succeeded in achieving those goals, but we must denounce their imperialist ambitions and policies.

The Meiji Restoration reminds the administrative grade that a strong governing team cannot succeed without a shared mission capable of uniting most of the civil servants and politicians in the city. AOs should act as role models to embrace the shared goals of the principal officials.

Although Leo Goodstadt argues, without the support of sufficient evidence, that the Principal Officials Accountability System (POAS) may not contribute to good governance (Leo Goodstadt, A City Mismanaged: Hong Kong’s Struggle for Survival (HK: HKU Press, 2018),p 16), the most that can safely be said is that some senior AOs may have difficulty in cooperating with the political appointees. In response to this, John Lee should emphasize communication between his governing team and the administrative grade in the hope of uniting the entire civil service and promoting a harmonious relationship within it.

Finally, we make four proposals to sharpen the competitive edge of AOs and strengthen their relations with the public. First, in view of the fact that the promotion of AO is mainly based on seniority, we suggest incorporating a supplemental performance-based promotion mechanism into the existing system so as to encourage junior AOs to work harder to climb up the administrative ladder. Second, we suggest introducing a performance-related pay system to give more incentives to outstanding performers.

Third, we should allow some competent AOs who have professional knowledge in a specialized field to spend more time developing their skills in that field. Those successful specialists may consider accepting the invitation to become political appointees under the POAS in future. Fourth, AOs should be encouraged to conduct regular site visits in different districts in order to gain a better understanding of the deep-rooted socioeconomic problems in the city and strengthen their relations with the residents in those districts.

Junius Ho Kwan-yiu is a Legislative Council member and a solicitor.

Kacee Ting Wong is a barrister, part-time researcher of Shenzhen University Hong Kong and the Macao Basic Law Research Center, and co-founder of the Together We Can and Hong Kong Coalition.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.