Challenges lie ahead in Public Address goals

Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s final Policy Address in her term as chief executive clearly demonstrates her administration’s determination to tackle head-on all the intractable livelihood issues that have confounded all CEs, including housing, transport, social welfare, education, and the widening wealth gap. While the plans look impressive on paper, their ultimate success depends entirely on successful implementation, not forgetting each would have to overcome enormous challenges.

As Hong Kong is back on the right track of “one country, two systems”, unlike in the past when nearly all government initiatives were stonewalled by legislators from the “pan-democratic” camp, the ambitious plans outlined in the CE’s speech can expect a smooth ride through the new Legislative Council, likely to be filled with constructive patriots eager to serve the greater public good.

I am more worried about the caliber of the government officials tasked with monitoring the implementation of the program to revitalize Hong Kong. This is because the dismal performance of the officials tasked with monitoring the counting of votes in the recent election of Election Committee members did not inspire me with confidence. It is inconceivable that hundreds of civil servants would take 14 hours to count just 4,000 votes! It was revealed that during the vote counting, three voting papers were mysteriously found “mislaid” inside a drawer, causing an enormous loss of time to search the missing ballots and recount the votes. While we have yet to find out whether this fiasco is the result of incompetence or mischief by radical civil servants to embarrass the government, either way, it signals a shaky civil service whose former solid integrity is now being questioned.

For the (Hong Kong) government to gain public confidence, it should follow the best practice of the central government’s 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25), which details the timelines for all the projects that should be completed in five years’ time. … In other words, there should be a project critical path chart for all to see, to monitor the government’s performance pledge, and to hold the respective government officials accountable for any failure to meet the pledge

Meanwhile, we are left struggling to understand the grotesque comments by some civil servants on the accidental death of a female senior police inspector in a sea chase of smugglers. Instead of expressing their condolences and respect for losing her life in the line of duty, certain officers from the Fire Services and Correctional Services departments and even within the police ranks are known to have published “congratulatory” messages over the officer’s tragic death! What is even more concerning is that these aberrant cases could be the tip of the iceberg of deviant behavior among civil servants, some of whom may even occupy senior ranks. They are basically ticking time bombs that may one day go off to hurt the government in any number of ways. It is therefore imperative that they are ferreted out before they can do serious damage. It is irrelevant that they have sworn their allegiance to the special administrative region government because to them, the oath-taking ceremony is just meaningless play-acting. And they would have no compunction sabotaging the implementation of those programs that would mark a turning point in improving our quality of life.   

Apart from the threat of internal sabotage, most government departments are notoriously slow in project implementation. Take the case of introducing mandatory rubbish bags. It is hardly a complicated project, and it has already been successfully implemented in Taiwan and many other places. Yet it took 16 years from the government’s announcement of the initiative to the passage of the enabling legislation. On top of that, officials have been given another 18 months to prepare for its implementation. If introducing mandatory rubbish disposal bags has taken so long to launch, what about all these far more complicated massive programs concerning housing and transport infrastructure?

One item which stood out in the CE’s Policy Address is the proposed creation of the New Territories North Metropolis, which is expected to provide 905,000 homes and 650,000 jobs, eventually accommodating a population of about 2.5 million. This is great in mitigating our housing shortage and dispersing our urban population density. But some experts estimate that based on the current pace of the government’s development projects, it would probably take 20 years for the North Metropolis to materialize, hardly a comforting thought to those living in caged homes for years awaiting public housing allocation.

Another example is Lam’s intention to double the annual quota of the Quality Migrant Admission Scheme to 4,000. However, if we look at a similar program that was introduced in June 2018, the Technology Talent Admission Scheme aimed to attract science and technical professionals from all over the world to work in Hong Kong. But by February, only 224 people were granted entry permits. It’s another example of smart ideas but not smartly implemented. It just goes to show that our officials need to be more pragmatic in their policy formulation and implementation.

For the government to gain public confidence, it should follow the best practice of the central government’s 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25), which details the timelines for all the projects that should be completed in five years’ time. Hong Kong people would certainly be keen to know what is likely to be achieved in five years’ time under the North Metropolis project. In other words, there should be a project critical path chart for all to see, to monitor the government’s performance pledge, and to hold the respective government officials accountable for any failure to meet the pledge.

Since the colonial era, the implementation of major government policy initiatives has rested with the administrative officers, who occupied nearly all the top ranks of government departments and bureaus. However, the Achilles’ heel of the AO system is that they are mostly “generalist” by nature and may not be able to cope with the increasingly complex technical environment of governance in our technological age. And an AO normally occupies the top rank in their respective post for only a few years and is transferred to other postings for their career development. Most of them were imbued with the laid-back philosophy of so-called “positive non-interventionism” style of governance. Accordingly, many AOs would just hold the fort and take a conservative approach to minimize the possibilities of mistakes during their tenure rather than taking bold and difficult measures which might improve people’s way of life. In other words, the AOs tend to avoid potentially unpopular decisions that might hinder their career development. Indeed, it would not be in their personal interest to engage in long-term policy planning and implementation for which they would not be able to claim credit before their posting ends. Hence, respect for due process such as the need for wide consultation is often their excuse for not accelerating the completion of any projects. This mentality of “little done, little wrong” can lead to stasis in government. It is also the focus of President Xi Jinping’s criticism when he declared, “Those civil servants who refused to act should be shamed for their lives”. In any case, such short postings make it impossible for them to become experts in their respective jobs. In this modern age, except for a minority of countries such as the United Kingdom, most advanced nations, including the United States, Germany, Japan, and Singapore, have appointed long-serving specialists instead of generalists to head their respective departments.

It is thus encouraging to note that the Policy Address has called for a review of the current appointment system for the top ranks of government. Perhaps one step forward would be the phasing out of the AO system. Henceforth, all AO vacancies would be filled through open recruitment, and the bureau’s policy secretary, instead of the permanent secretary, would chair the recruitment board. Serving AOs can, of course, apply for the post and compete with other outsiders on an equal footing. In this way, the vacancies would be filled by the best candidates and in the process attract more professionals from the community to work for the government, be it on a short-term contract basis or as pensionable civil servants.

Of course, there are AOs who are highly competent. For example, Radio Television Hong Kong had become an anti-China and anti-establishment subversive hotbed, with many of its programs monopolized by anti-China elements. Yet with the posting of a capable AO as its new head, the station’s subversive tendency was swiftly eradicated. This demonstrates the importance of implementation and firm leadership by patriotic senior officials.

On the way forward, Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po should require all relevant bureaus and departments to come up with a detailed five-year plan in response to all the good initiatives in the Policy Address and have it published in conjunction with his Budget speech. This would give teeth to the government’s policy commitments and offer real hope to the residents. Indeed, the candidates competing for the CE election in March should each come up with their own Five-Year Plan for comparison. This would ensure that projects like the Northern Metropolis are not like some critic suggested — just another pie in the sky!

The author is an adjunct professor of HKU Space, a council member of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies, and a former deputy commissioner of the ICAC.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.