Date
13 December 2017
Education Secretary Eddie Ng has said that even though he is personally responsible for the overall education policies, he still needs the support of the entire government as a team. Photo: CNSA
Education Secretary Eddie Ng has said that even though he is personally responsible for the overall education policies, he still needs the support of the entire government as a team. Photo: CNSA

Are bureau chiefs subordinate to the chief secretary?

Earlier this month, former chief secretary and CE candidate Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor announced her election platform and vowed to divert an extra HK$5 billion into education every year if she is elected.

She also took the opportunity to criticize the education policy of the current Leung Chun-ying administration, saying the Education Bureau is ridden with problems both “in terms of its mindset and the way it executes its policies”.

Lam’s remarks immediately came under fire from former Legco president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing, who argued in a newspaper column that if things had really gone wrong with our education policies, Lam herself should also be held accountable because she used to be the immediate superior of Education Secretary Eddie Ng Hak-kim during her term of office as chief secretary.

Under our current government structure, Tsang added, the Education Bureau is placed under the direct supervision of the chief secretary. As such, Lam was not justified in dissociating herself completely with her former subordinate, nor should she have put it in a way as if she had absolutely nothing to do with the poor performance of the Bureau.

When asked by reporters whether she should also be held accountable for the poor education policies of the current administration like Tsang said, Lam said she was not the immediate superior of any bureau chief as some people might think, because all of them were nominated by the chief executive, and therefore it was the CE, not her, to whom they were supposed to answer.

Later Education Secretary Ng said during a public event that even though he is personally responsible for the overall education policies of the administration, he needs the support of the entire government as a team.

Lam’s rebuttal indeed raises a serious issue regarding our government structure: are bureau chiefs actually subordinate to the chief secretary or not?

Well, the answer is in fact both “yes” and “no”, and Lam was not entirely wrong when she disavowed any responsibility for the allegedly poor job the education secretary had done.

It is because according to the original intention of former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa when he first introduced the accountability system back in 2002, bureau chiefs were no longer placed under the direct supervision of the chief secretary as before. Rather, they were supposed to directly answer to the chief executive himself under the new system.

And it was probably mainly for this reason that former chief secretary Anson Chan tendered her resignation as a protest, since under the new accountability system, the chief secretary was no longer the head of the entire civil service and was demeaned as nothing more than a figurehead.

However, things began to change again when Donald Tsang Yam-kuen succeeded Tung as chief executive in 2005. After he assumed office, Tsang immediately modified the accountability system laid down by his predecessor.

Under the modified system, the Office of the Chief Secretary resumed its leading role within the government, and bureau chiefs, according to Tsang’s new design, must report to the chief secretary first, who would then report to the chief executive (with the exception of 4 bureaus that are responsible for financial and economic affairs, whose chiefs must report to the financial secretary instead).

The current Leung Chun-ying administration has largely inherited such a 3-layer decision-making structure from Donald Tsang and stuck to it ever since it assumed office in 2012.

As we can see, the role of the chief secretary has indeed become rather unclear and fluctuating ever since the accountability system was introduced. Simply put, the Office of the Chief Secretary has relatively little constitutionally prescribed functions, and its exact role often depends on how much power it is given by the chief executive.

Strictly speaking, Lam and Ng didn’t blatantly pass the buck to each other. What they did is simply carefully negotiate through the grey areas regarding the relationship between bureau chiefs and the chief secretary in order to avoid embarrassment.

Nevertheless, since the accountability system is initially intended to enhance government accountability, we believe it is important for the administration to clearly define the relationship between bureau heads and the chief secretary in order to allow the system to fulfill that initial aim and operate properly.

We strongly urge the next government to take the issue seriously and eliminate any ambiguity.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb. 20

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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RC

Hong Kong Economic Journal

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