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Cultivate Political Talents Develop a Cabinet System — Review of the Principal Officials Accountability System and the Executive Council

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Research Background

The political significance and importance of the Principal Officials Accountability System in Hong Kong

The Principal Officials Accountability System (the Accountability System) has been implemented for 15 years, starting in 2002. The original intention of the Accountability System was to enable the Chief Executive to establish a political team that shares similar political views and to allow these principal officials to respond more actively to the needs of society. Later, during Mr. Donald Tsang Yam-kuen’s administration, the SAR Government proposed the “Further Development of the Political Appointment System” to train political talents so as to provide more political support for the principal officials. Although the implementation and expansion of the Accountability System is a response to certain governance problems, the accountability system seems to receive more negative comments than positive ones, and the overall poll ratings of principal officials is at a relating low level, owing to the influence of varying circumstances. As the highest-level political structure of the SAR Government, the effectiveness of the Accountability System does not only affect the SAR Government’s popularity, but also the formulation and implementation of major policies. Therefore, how the accountability system should continue is a matter of governance that must be addressed.

The Accountability System is in line with the development of the political system:

Although the specific operations of the Accountability System still need to be improved, it does respond to problems derived from bureaucratic governance. After the handover, with the development of the electoral system and the changes in social environment, discussion of public policy has entailed coming face-to-face with differences in value judgment and ideology that are difficult to resolve solely through reliance on administrative procedures. Although some senior civil servants do have a strong political sense, the ability to master “political judgment” is not an inevitable outcome of professional training in the civil service. In Western democracies, the work of political judgment is the responsibility of the SAR Government leadership generated by the democratic system. Politicization and democratization are the inevitable trends of Hong Kong’s political development. The Accountability System allows a more pronounced role and division of labor between politics and administration, which will help further liberalize the decision making power once universal suffrage has been realized. We should not begin to think about the road ahead for the Accountability System only after the implementation of universal suffrage. Otherwise, this will cause governance problems.

Core issues of the Accountability System

The implementation of the Accountability System does not only change the relationship between the Chief Executive, the principal officials and civil servants, but also raises the public’s expectations of governance quality and opens up opportunities for political participation. The research team, after reviewing the development and effectiveness of the entire Accountability System and comparing it with foreign case studies, summarizes its core issues as follows:

(1) The Accountability System fails to respond to public concerns about the “accountability of officials”

The fact that the Hong Kong-style ministerial system is named after the “accountability system” while the territory does not appear to have a ruling party naturally leads the public to focus on the personal responsibility of individual principal officials (or “ministerial accountability”). However, “ministerial accountability” does not have an agreed-upon academic or substantive definition, and the replacement of officials is often a measure of last resort. The SAR Government also fails to clearly distinguish between the personal responsibility of officials and the overall responsibility of the whole governance team, which inclines the public to use “whether there is any official who can step down” as a rubric for judging whether the spirit of accountability has been honored. In the long run, it remains difficult for the Accountability System to respond to public expectations, and the principal officials will continue to come under political pressure.

(2) The governance team lacks common political ideas

Although Mr Tung Chee-hwa hoped to establish a coherent governance team based on the spirit of the Accountability System, officials have no common background or experience in co-operation,
and officials are inevitably not incentive to support each other. Although the Executive Council (2002-2005) was once reorganized into a “cabinet” structure to let the Principal Officials possess decision-making power in a collective sense, the subsequent governments have changed the composition and the operation of the Executive Council, which may prevent the council from playing its intended cabinet functions. The concept of “collective responsibility” of the Executive Council also lacks a clear definition, which hinders the development and implementation of the “cabinet” concept.

(3) Limited by procedures and experience, Under Secretaries and Political Assistants are unable to fully fulfil their functions to support Secretaries

In the second term of the SAR Government, only the Secretaries were politically appointed officials. It was difficult for them to cope with politics, the media, and policy development at the same time. Therefore, in 2006, the SAR Government has decided to give sufficient political support to the principal officials by expanding the political appointment level. Although the SAR Government was well aware of the problem, the Under Secretaries and Political Assistants failed to fully demonstrate their value and importance in enhancing the capacity of the Secretaries due to their limited experience and procedural limitations. In the case of Under Secretaries, their functions can be summarized as: (a) assisting in policy formulation, (ii) lobbying the Legislative Council and major stakeholders to support the policy, and (iii) maintaining political connections with stakeholders. However, under the current policy development process and division of labor, it is not easy for the Under Secretaries to intervene. They must not only find their place in the process of policy formulation, but must also have sufficient capacity to obtain approval from senior civil servants and officials. If the Under Secretaries do not have the opportunity to participate in the policy formulation and have no professional knowledge or background, it will be more difficult for them to lobby legislators and main stakeholders to get them to accept the policy. Political Assistants mainly provide behind-the-scene analysis, coordination and lobbying, in addition to other roles. If some Political Assistants do not have media experience and are not necessarily aware of their policy areas, they will focus more on political connections. However, the status and power of Political Assistants have not been recognized by the various stakeholders, and the views they collect are too fragmented and difficult to translate into substantive policy recommendations. In situations where their work is too trivial or even overlaps with the roles of civil servants, it will be harder for the SAR Government to persuade the public to maintain the political assistant system.

(4) There is no complete political personnel training and promotion mechanism

It is not easy to find suitable candidates for political appointments, to provide them with promotion opportunities and to keep them in the political sector. In Western democratic countries, the parliament, the political party system, national schools of public administration, etc., ensure the supply of political talents within a political structure. They also allow professional political practitioners to transfer to different political positions during the rotation of parties. But in Hong Kong, the position of Political Assistant should not be understood as a step on the promotional ladder to the position of Under Secretary. The differences in qualifications, job requirements and age between Under Secretaries and Political Assistants are obvious, and the two positions lack transitional posts, which makes it difficult for the Political Assistants to stay in the government for long; some of them are even forced to leave the political circle. “Cultivation of political talents” has therefore become a lost cause. Without the aid of a mature political party and a fully-developed legislature, it is difficult to ensure the supply and promotion of political talents from within the political structure simply by expanding the political appointment system. In this case, whether the current Chief Executive can find the right person to be the principal officer depends on his/her style of administration, interpersonal network, political negotiation skills and so on.

Moreover, the “revolving door” mechanism has not been fully developed under the current political system. When political appointees leave their office, unless permitted by the “Advisory Committee on Post-office Employment for Politically Appointed Officials”, they can only be employed by other agencies or institutes after a year of “sterilization period”. Of no doubt, for those who would like to further develop their political career or career in other fields, a year of “sterilization period” has imposed a huge restriction. Such mechanism not only would discourage talents from joining the SAR Government, it would also result in fractures in the promotion of political talents. Thus, from joining the SAR Government to leaving the SAR Government, the current “revolving door” mechanism does not facilitate a stable supply of political talents.


The main ideas of our policy recommendations

Political restrictions (such as failure to implement universal suffrage and political party politics) are, of course, the main causes of difficulty for the Accountability System. In addition to larger political reforms, many hold that “finding a better Secretary” can temporarily make up for the inadequacies of the Accountability System. This practice is well known, and can be a “soft” partial solution for the problems above under existing conditions. The “meritocracy” principle should be translated into a policy proposal. This proposal should refer to how to increase the number of candidates who are sufficiently competent to be Secretaries as well as how to improve the appointment mechanism for politically appointed officials. Even if the SAR Government can find the right people to serve as principal officials, the appointees also need a certain level of political support in order to handle complex political work.

Similarly, if the principal officials lack a common governance philosophy, however talented an individual official may be, they will still be constrained when facing cross-bureau or large scale governance problems. Therefore, our other two policy recommendations include: adjusting the functions and positioning of the Under Secretaries and Political Appointees so that they can fully assist the Secretaries in policy administration; the “cabinetization” of the Executive Council and the actual implementation of “collective responsibility”, in order to foster the establishment
of team spirit.


Our policy recommendations

Recommendation 1: Institutionalize the appointment and training of the Under Secretaries

We propose that the SAR Government should change the selection mechanism and procedures for the Under Secretaries. When hiring an Under Secretary, the SAR Government should add
four procedures, namely “Entry Requirements”, “Recruitment Examination”, “Interview” and “Training”, so as to establish a systematic appointment mechanism. The candidates for the Under Secretaries should be categorized into three groups: civil servants at the D3 level; those who have served as special advisors for five years; and those with 15 years of professional/ managerial experience. Under this proposal, the SAR Government should study the examination questions of other national public administration schools to formulate a set of assessment criteria and areas which are most suitable for appointing Under Secretaries. At the same time, the SAR Government should fully utilize the Civil Service Training and Development Institute of the Civil Service Bureau, extend the existing training courses and resources to political appointments, and provide Under Secretaries with a series of public administration, leadership and management courses as well as learning resources.

Recommendation 2: Adjust the remuneration of Secretaries to increase the incentive for Permanent Secretaries to take up positions as of Secretaries.

Since 2009, civil servants have had pay rises; however, there are no corresponding readjustments on the remuneration of Principle Officials. Although the proposal of raising the salaries
of bureau heads by 12 % is approved by the Legislative Council and will be implemented in the next term of the SAR Government, the readjustment remains a short-term measure and provides no structural solution to the percentage difference between the pay of the Secretaries and Point 8 of the Directorate Pay Scale (D8). We propose that the SAR Government should maintain a certain percentage difference between the pay of the Secretaries and Point 8 of the Directorate Pay Scale (D8) to increase the incentive for Permanent Secretaries to take up positions as Principal Officials.

Recommendation 3: Change the role of Political Assistants to special advisers to provide flexible support to Secretaries

(A) Removal of Political Assistants from the political appointment system and replacing them with Special Advisors

We propose that the government should remove the post of Political Assistants from the political appointment system and transfer the existing resources that currently belong to the Political Assistants to the corresponding Secretaries for their flexible arrangement. If the Secretary wishes to continue to employ political appointees (on top of Under Secretary) to help in the administration, we propose that the government should replace the original “Political Assistant” position with one for a “Special advisor”. The Special advisor should be an expert in a particular area and act as a personal assistant or a staff member for the Secretary. The SAR Government should prepare a separate code of practice for Special advisors. Before hiring a Special advisor, the Secretary should also submit to the Chief Executive the personal résumé and the specific working arrangements of the Special advisor. After the appointment is made, the personal résumé of the Special advisor should be disclosed to the public.

(B) Allow offices to flexibly allocate cash remuneration

The research team believes that the use of resources by the bureaux can be further eased by proposing a grant for a fixed amount of money to each Secretary equal to the current salary of a Political Assistant (HK$ 104,340). The Secretaries are free to use the fund to appoint Special Advisors or for policy research and other purposes to meet the special needs of the bureau. The bureau may also redeploy the unused funds for other forms of support.

Recommendation 4: Require principal officials to hold community residents’ meetings on a regular basis

We recommend that the principal officials of the next administration should conduct “public question and answer sessions” regularly in different districts to explain policies to the public and to face public inquiries so as to enhance communication and strengthen the political skills of the officials.

Recommendation 5: Reorganize the Executive Council into a government cabinet and exercise collective responsibility

We recommend that the SAR Government should limit the number of unofficial members of the Executive Council to no more than five persons and cancel the position of Convenor of the Executive Council Non-official Members. When the majority of the Executive Council consists of the Chief Executive and the principal officials, the Executive Council will be reorganized into the SAR Government Cabinet. The principal officials will express their views as cabinet members and make collective decisions within the cabinet. All cabinet resolutions will be collectively resolved. At the same time, members of the Cabinet (both official and non-official) must fully support the collective resolution of the cabinet and are collectively responsible for the results of the collective resolution. As for individual policy promotion or enforcement, the relevant principal officials are personally responsible.


Hong Kong Political talents (In Chinese Only)

A revolving door for political talents (In Chinese Only)

Video of Press Conference



Convenor of Hong Kong Vision Project, Mr. Jasper Tsang Yok-sing (2nd left), Executive & Research Director of Hong Kong Vision Project, Mr. Andrew Fung Ho-keung (2nd right), Researcher Dr.Kay Lam Chi-yan 1st left) and Research Assistant, Mr. Philip Ho Chun-kit( 1st right) presented their discourse and recommendations for reviewing the Principal Officials Accountability System and the Executive Council.