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Govt strives to improve governance

In overall terms, the Accountability System represents an important step in the right direction. However, the operation of the system has not been entirely smooth in the past year, says the "12-month Report on Implementation of the Accountability System for Principal Officials (POs)" released by the Constitutional Affairs Bureau today (July 18).

The report says that the Government will learn from the incidents in the past year and strive for improvements. The Government will improve on the existing arrangements of canvassing public opinions, and enhancing its communication with the public and the Legislative Council (LegCo) so as to ensure Government policies are more in tune with public aspirations.

The report also states that the march on July 1 demonstrated clearly to the Government that the public has dissatisfaction with its governance and what the Government has done falls short of public expectations.

The report says that on July 17, the Chief Executive (CE) indicated that the Government would meet various political parties, major sectors of the community, the media and opinion leaders regularly.

The Government would keep in touch with citizens through various means to listen to their views directly. It would also actively strive to open channels of discussion and to engage professional and committed persons in various advisory and statutory committees and organisations. Through these institutionalised and effective channels, they would make positive contributions to the governance of the Government.

The report also mentions that on July 16, the CE announced that he had accepted the resignation of the Financial Secretary (FS) and the Secretary for Security.

The Secretary for Constitutional Affairs, Mr Stephen Lam, said, "This shows that under the system, the POs could, having regard to circumstances pertaining, tender their resignation to the CE.

"The CE could then decide, in the light of prevailing circumstances, how to reorganise his political team to regain public confidence in the Government.

"Compared with the previous system whereby PO positions were filled by civil servants, under which any misconduct would need to be handled in accordance with the civil service disciplinary mechanism and civil servants were not in a position to shoulder political responsibility, the present system represents an improvement."

In reviewing the implementation of the system in the past year, Mr Lam said that the new system had three clear advantages.

First, henceforth, any future CE would need to form a political team of POs with similar political beliefs, who were willing to account to the people of Hong Kong collectively for the governance of Hong Kong. These POs would shoulder the political responsibility of governance, address the aspirations of the community and respond to the public demands.

Second, through the appointment of the slate of Permanent Secretaries, the system had preserved the fine traditions of a permanent, professional and politically neutral civil service. This would be conducive to maintaining the stability of the administrative structure in Hong Kong in the long term.

Third, in dealing with major political incidents such as the Penny Stocks incident, the Car Purchase incident and the legislative proposals relating to the implementation of Basic Law Article 23, the CE would consider all relevant factors before deciding whether a politically appointed PO should face criticism, make a public apology or leave office. The existing system allowed the CE to formulate his own judgement on each and every incident.

He said that even though implementation of the accountability system had not been entirely smooth, the Government had become more flexible, decisive and responsive in addressing the aspirations and demands of the community.

For example, following the outbreak of SARS, the $11.8 billion package to revive the economy was formulated in only a few weeks' time.

Mr Lam said that the undertaking given by the Constitutional Affairs Bureau to provide the 12-month review report last year mainly covered the following administrative matters:

(1) Saving of resources

Mr Lam said that during the deliberations of the system, the Government had undertaken that sufficient resources would be saved in 12 months' time to ensure that the implementation of the system would not involve additional expenditure.

The Government also undertook that the expenditure arising from the implementation of the system would be offset by savings through the deletion of directorate posts.

Through various reorganisation exercises, together with other streamlining and cost-saving exercises, the Government had identified savings of $111.158 million.

The savings arising from deletion of directorate posts amounted to $46.398 million. These savings alone were already in excess of the $42.228 million incurred when the system was introduced last year.

(2) System on declaration of interests

The Government undertook to review the system on declaration of interests last year. The review had been completed.

POs had to provide more information for public inspection in respect of land or buildings held by them.

Where the POs were a director or shareholder of, or had an interest in a private company, local or offshore, the nature of business of the company would also be declared.

(3) Division of responsibilities between FS and Secretary for Financial Services and the Treasury (SFST)

Mr Lam said that information on the responsibilities of the FS and SFST was made public on June 27 to delineate more clearly the roles and responsibilities of these two positions.

As for other reviews including the review of statutory and advisory bodies, the review of statutory powers of the Chief Secretary and the FS and the remuneration for the third term CE, the Administration would revert to the LegCo as appropriate.

The Constitutional Affairs Bureau has submitted the report to the LegCo for discussion at the meeting of the Constitutional Affairs Panel to be held next Monday (July 21).

End/Friday, July 18, 2003