Friday, December 10, 2004

Powers

This is an article I read from Ming Pao in July 2004, written by 龍應台,前台北市文化局長。It is about power in the society and it reminds me of the subject I learnt from the lecture on political science in my MSc study. It is especially revealing in the present day scenario when we witness intensively everyday the power struggle between principal officials, government officials, legislators, academics and the media.

當權力在手

每一種權力都有它本來的目的。政務官負責政策的擘劃,事務官負責政策的執行,民意代表負責審查,媒體記者負責監督,知識分子用知識和筆作時代的眼光。這五種人手都掌握了一個東西,叫做權力,但是每一種權力作用不一。

政務官的權力在於理念的實踐,他意念中想做的事情,因為手中擁有權杖,全部都可以變成現實。在這個意義上,總統和縣市長都是政務官。他說,河邊應該有一個音樂廳,河邊就有一個音樂廳;他說,古蹟應該全面保存,古蹟就被全面保存。反之亦然,他說,鎖國開始,國家的大門就啞然關閉;他說,打倒「偶像」,「偶像」就在煙塵中轟然倒下。這種「點石成金」的權力是任何建樹的必要條件,但同時蘊藏破壞和毀滅的能量。侯賽因把國家帶到滅亡的深淵,布殊把國家拓展成武裝的世界警長,都是這種權力的行使,它可載可覆,可生可死。

事務官的權力在於執法,政策和法規透過事務官的實際操作才發生效力。手中握法規,他決定發不發給建築執照,通不通過環境評估;他起草的公文、蓋下的印章,決定他所服務的社會做不做得到「老有所終,壯有所用,幼有所長,矜寡孤獨廢疾者皆有所養」。他是否聰慧,能活潑解釋死板的條文?他是否具執行力,能貫徹政策的初衷?要窺探一個國家文明的程度,先去測量這個國家事務官聰慧和執行力的程度。事務官手中的權力行使適當,國家機器運轉順暢,就是國泰民安。事務官濫用權力,就成為荼毒生靈的惡吏。司馬遷以不世之大才,被「吏」的「威約之勢」踐踏折磨,以至於讀書人「見獄吏則頭槍地,視徒隸則心惕息」。「吏」治清明與否,其實是國家禍福的指標。

民意代表的權力,透過預算以及法案的審查,體現在對於官吏施政的監督。預算編列符合不符合國家發展的需要,預算執行符合不符合預算的編列,法案的精神符合不符合現實,含不含配套措施,有沒有遠見,都是民意代表可以而且必須定奪的地方。他的權力不在於空談國事,漫天批判,而鎖在一個非常明確的焦點領域:檢驗政務官提出的施政藍圖,秋毫明察,錙銖必較。民意代表是政策品質的把關者。民意代表如果失職,推出的法規制度可以禍國殃民,通過的施政預算可以勞民傷財;民意代表如果濫權,官商可以需索無度,國事可以空轉虛耗。民意代表的權力若是使用在刀口上,那麼政務官不敢無識,事務官不敢無能,法規不容偏頗,施政不許懈怠。這樣的權力是為智者設計的。

如果民意代表的監督權力限制在一個小而關鍵的焦點──預算和法案,那麼媒體的權力領域就大多了,它可以「空談國事,漫天批判」,只要有事實的根據。一個取得了人民信任的媒體權力可以大到左右國家前途,形塑社會價值,決定元首的去留,它更可以輕而易舉地成就一個英雄或者毀掉一個偶像。這種權力被扭曲、被操縱的時候,就是一個社會的核心價值基礎開始腐蝕的時候。真和假,是與非,崇高或可恥的標準一旦顛倒混淆,幾代人的努力都可能變成虛無,又要從零開始,可是誰不知道:不斷地從零開始是絕不可能累積成文明的。

知識分子依靠知識和見識取得指點江山的權力。知識使他懂得多,見識使他想得深看得遠,下筆如千軍萬馬,人們屏息傾聽。國家有難、局勢有變的時候,他的言論可以是混沌中的明燈,他的行為可以做為人們仰望的典範。在亂世中,他的言行更可以與當權者抗衡較勁,比春秋長短。知識分子手中有筆,筆就是權力。當他的筆無法行使權力的時候,知識分子就得反躬自省:是亂世危邦的客觀環境不許,還是自己的無知無能與墮落?

相較於廣大的平民百姓,政務官、事務官、民意代表、媒體記者、知識分子都是掌有權力的人。細究之下,每一種權力都很可怕,它可以興邦,可以覆邦,影響這一代人的此刻,下一代人的未來。掌權的人對自己手中所握有的權力──權力的性質、權力的界限、權力的責任──是否深思過呢?

政務官該不該做事務官的工作?不應該,可是內政部長硬是會帶大批媒體記者親自挨家挨戶去臨檢居家隔離的人,一件基層事務官該做的事。而當政策執行不力的時候,政務官又要指摘是事務官失職。疫病席捲全國,總統、行政院長、部長等等不停地在媒體前,義正辭嚴的,指摘各層事務官的處理疏失──口罩遺失、疫情謊報、設備不全、後援不足……。為甚麼不指出,問題的根源在於五十年都沒建立起完善的基礎醫療體系以及科學的管理制度以至於疾病一來潰不成軍,而基礎醫療體系和科學管理制度的建立難道是事務官的權力?政務官幹甚麼去了?

誰有權力,誰就要負責任;誰的權力愈大,誰就要負愈大的責任。權大責小,造就虛偽怠惰的政務官;責大權小,培養推諉避過的事務官。

民意代表該不該行使媒體的權力──經營媒體,或者在媒體主持政治節目?不可以。問題有兩種,一是球員兼裁判的不公。民意代表也是媒體的監督對象,自己怎麼監督自己呢?一是公器私用的不正。民意代表的俸祿得自人民,所佔的位子是謂公器,自己的工作時間、所蒐集的資料、所得來的訊息、所聘用的人員,所過手的一張紙一枝筆一枚針,都應該百分之百用在預算和法案的審查上。任何一點點一絲絲因為公器而得來的用在與此公器無關的事情上,都是一種公器的私用與濫用。博物館館長不能開古董店,公私分明,利益迴避,是權力行使的前提。

Monday, December 6, 2004

Boosting government productivity

Further to the article from Mckinsey Quarterly on Organizing for Effectiveness in the Public Sector, Mckinsey carries another article on a similar topic. Although it is not a sequel to the last one, it is similar in that it is about Boosting Government Productivity.

The article starts by proposing a way to meet the expected huge government expenditure owing to the aging population: by boosting government productivity. It mentions a study on the comparison of productivity growth in the private and public sector. You can guess the result, that the productivity growth in the public sector since 1987 lags much behind the private sector: only about 0.4% p.a. compared with 1.5%-3% in the private sector. The authors propose that: although many people think that improving productivity is synonymous with cost cutting and layoffs, the latter often lead to poorer service and thus to lower productivity. Boosting productivity can bring both cost savings and better service.

This is a very basic principle that we all know. The problem is how to put it into practice. So I am interested to know what magic touch the authors have. They propose three classical management tools.

1. Organizational redesign
A redesign that focuses on the end "customer," eliminates duplication, and streamlines processes can improve both the cost and the quality of services

2. Procurement
Improving supplier-management and purchasing operations can help organizations cut their expenditures while raising the quality of the goods and services they buy. Governments mounting such efforts usually standardize and consolidate orders, designate preferred suppliers, reward them for meeting delivery and quality targets, and collaborate with them on ways to improve production processes and reduce costs.

3. Operational redesign
Redesigning operational processes to reduce waste, eliminate unneeded effort, and correct mistakes quickly can also raise productivity to an astonishing extent. "E-government" initiatives too can radically improve service and customer satisfaction while reducing costs.

We will probably say that aren't we know about all these already. If it is so simple, why aren't everyone doing them. The authors do recognize some barriers and try to overcome them.

1. Competition is the most important missing element. Without competition, managers have little incentive to take risks on new techniques. The solution is creating competition to provide services and giving citizens the ability to choose among these alternatives. Outsourcing creates competition, e.g. allowing private-sector companies to bid on social-service contracts lets them compete with government providers.

2. Managers can be prodded to meet targets if governments budget-in expected performance improvements.

3. Making the performance of governments more transparent by publishing the results of customer satisfaction surveys, benchmarking surveys, and service-quality metrics also helps citizens to take an active role in demanding change.

4. Committed leadership, a critical mass of talent, processes that budget for productivity targets, and citizens who know that they have a stake in a better outcome and hold officials accountable for achieving it.

5. One way of building public confidence and media support and of stoking the appetite for change is to design the reform effort so that it delivers high-profile early victories.

Come to think of it, we heard about these from the Public Sector Reform several years ago. I wonder where we failed. For competitions, private sector involvements are encouraged. But we see some political forces acting against contracting-out, both on its impact on civil servant job security and exploitation of labour. Also, recently, the basic principle of privatizing public assets is challenged. For 2 and 3, the government is giving out smaller budget envelopes. For 4, do you think we have committed leadership and a critical mass of talent? If not, how can we improve on these aspects. I think we failed badly on 5, mainly because the government does not have good PR strategy and support.

Back to the EO grade, I think we haven't passed 1. Not that we do not have competition, but it seems to me that we do not even recognize that we do have competition.

Sunday, December 5, 2004

Organizing for Effectiveness in the Public Sector

I read an article in the November 2004 issue of the Mckinsey Quarterly on Organizing for Effectiveness in the Public Sector. It is an interesting article relevant to the issues we are facing. If you are concerned with the problem on the effectiveness of the government and wish to know a possible way out, you are recommended to go to www.mckinseyquarterly.com to have a look.

The article is written by Keith Leslie and Catherine Tilley of Mckinsey mainly based on the UK scenario, but the problem is seen everywhere, in particular in Hong Kong. It explains that market forces and private sector practices are not suitable for some types of public services for which social objectives are more important than financial objectives. As a result, these public organizations cannot discontinue expensive services, dismiss underperforming staff, seize offshore opportunities, or offer high salaries to attract top talent. It is also hard to inject a sense of momentum into large and complex organizations which are insulated from competition and have mixed, non-financial missions.

The authors point out the challenges facing such public organizations.

First, they are often monopolies that administer and deliver essential services to the entire population. Being large and complex, they tend to ossify and to become still larger as the years pass, partly because they are reluctant to prune deadwood. The result is not only waste but also fuzzy boundaries between units and a lack of clarity in roles and responsibilities. We see many examples in Hong Kong where large departments keep on delivering services and applying regulations which are out-dated. The responsibilities across departments, or the irresponsibilities that arise have created much confusion.

Second, they usually have broad social objectives that make it harder to rank goals than in the private sector, where the economic bottom line provides a natural focus. In an environment involving difficult trade-offs, public-sector executives sometimes find it difficult to focus on the right things and to track results. There are many quantifiable measures of success in the public sector, but rarely a single, uncomplicated bottom line. We often hear about such excuses being used when departments are accused of being unable to economize.

Third, the workforce of the public sector presents specific challenges. Many managers and frontline staff enter public-service careers for serving the community and the relative job security. Novel management practices such as contracting-out pose political problems because they can lead to job losses. The public sector tends to have a highly static workforce: many civil servants spend their entire working lives in the same organizations. An unchanging workforce in a rapidly changing world means that many public-sector bodies lack the skills they need. Notwithstanding the effort of our government in voluntary retirements and freezing recruitment, the effect on a large workforce delivering out-dated services is still minimal.

The article proposes five ways to re-organize and re-design public organizations. It claims that the organizational-design ideas can help reduce managerial complications and focus staff on doing the right things in the most efficient way.

1. Strengthen the top team

The problem starts at the top level. The first reorganization is the strengthening of the top team by making them work together and take responsibility for developing strategies, mission and objectives. A top team competing internally for resources is not effective. It is important to establish collective responsibility for issues, and in particular decisions about the allocation of resources. The top team needs to play its leadership role in setting and communicating priorities. This is something seriously lacking in our government. Our resource allocation mechanism induces short-sighted competition at the expense of long term goals. Members of the top team vying for their own interest has proven to create barriers, making cross-team cooperation difficult.

2. Separate the design and provision of services

The article advocates that the public sector's role should increasingly focus on the design of the system in the delivery of services, i.e. to be its architect, instead of being the end-to-end owner. On the actual provision of services, market forces can help stimulate accountability and performance. Some European governments have concluded that while they should continue to finance and specify the costs and levels of certain services, it may be appropriate for others to deliver them. Private companies, foundations, and public-private partnerships now compete with public-sector organizations for state funds to build and run hospitals, kindergartens, nursing homes, prisons, and schools. Our government also tries to move in this direction, though in a slow pace and with some difficulties.

3. Define the role of organizational centre

The role of the organizational centre, or headquarters, should be clearly defined. It should play a vital role in setting policy for the operational units and in directing their interaction. The authors note that headquarters of public organizations tend to be very large, often with huge budgets and staffs. Clarifying its distinctive roles is liberating for management and staff alike because everyone can focus on the most appropriate activities. The most effective way to redesign a head office is to retain only "shaping" and "safeguarding" activities.

This proposal leads me to think about the setting of our government, where bureaux are often criticized of having blurred responsibilities of politics and policies, and at the same time, trespassing on the operations of departments. A more effective and efficient structure for the bureaux is to turn them into purely political centres staffed only by politically appointed heads and deputy heads. All civil servants, including permanent secretaries, should work in departments. Departments should play the role of policy setting and safeguarding at the headquarters level, while the responsibility for provision of services should be delegated to operational divisions. The nucleus of the government comprising bureaux should only support the top political layer in the political arena. This would allow them to direct their full attention to political accountability, while departments would focus on doing the right things and doing them effectively in the provision of public services.

4. Integrate performance management

This is two-fold, both the performance management of the organizations and their staff. The Efficiency Unit has tried a system to monitor the performance of organizations in terms of key results areas and activities, i.e. not just financial performance. Such attempt died a natural death. I think the intention is very good but it does not have the whole-hearted support of bureaux and departments. Furthermore, a quantitative performance management system is not suitable for the public sector. The article's proposal that performance metrics should be simplified and each top public officer should be accountable to a few of the metrics is a good approach.

The major difference between managing performance in the public and private sectors is that bonuses are more common in the latter. Some suggests that performance-related bonuses aren't particularly effective in the public sector, partly because it can't afford to make them high enough to provide a real incentive. However, the authors suggest that performance-management systems can motivate employees even without a financial "carrot", for example, by identifying top performers, who can then get more interesting career opportunities. Furthermore, merely discussing performance can motivate employees by showing them that what they do matters.

5. Learn new skills

All successful organizations require managers and frontline staff to have the necessary skills. In the public sector, which has very low labour mobility, building such a staff means helping current employees to learn new skills. But instead of adopting the widely practiced approach of "everybody gets to go on a training course," organizations should concentrate on helping people develop the skills they need to increase their accountability and focus. This is a very valid observation, and is especially relevant to the EO Grade. In this fast changing world, new knowledge is required for new tasks. But in the stable civil service with good job security, we cannot easily refresh our knowledge and skills by introducing them externally at a fast pace. We need to continuously professionalize the Grade by professionalizing members of the grade. The criticism of "everybody gets to go on a training course" is really a hit on the nail head. We need structured training development plan for individual officers with the target of meeting the need of the Grade and more importantly the career of the officers. We need to have the vision of the way ahead instead of getting everyone trained on all fronts.

Wednesday, December 1, 2004

EGRIN

Just browsed through the notes of July 2004 meeting of the EGRIN Consultative Committee. The ladies and gentlemen of the Committee have prompted much improvements in EGRIN. The site has been made use of intensively in the dissemination of information. The materials there are richer and colleagues are able to find much information they need at work just by accessing EGRIN. The best improvement is the depository of training notes. Training officers also started discussion threads in the forum. This is a very good move in elevating interaction and collaboration in EGRIN.

We have put so much information in EGRIN to make it useful, fresh and content-rich. But what is the result, the utilization and the acceptance by staff? EGRIN is created because we want to be at the leading edge of knowledge management and sharing. GGO has taken good steps in persuading all colleagues to get information about the Grade from EGRIN: announcements, posting notices, KIT, etc. But if colleagues just read when prompted without responding, EGRIN will remain a cold medium with a one-way information flow.

Just a casual check on read-count of mail. When a new mail is posted, it is read about 50 times in several days. Many of them are repeats and I guess there are only about 30 colleagues reading. Compared with eo_net, about 130 members receive mail delivered to them. From the two figures, I wonder why even many eo_net members who use their computers frequently for communication do not read EGRIN mail.

Obviously, something must be done to improve the participation of colleagues in expressing themselves. Once this culture is established, views and comments on various aspects of the grade will follow. From the notes of meeting, there was discussion on whether authors of mail could be anonymous. The advantage of revealed identity was recognized as that authors would express their views in a more conscious manner. Since when EOs are irresponsible and engage in vandalism?? In eo_net, members are not required to reveal their identity. Although the moderators make sure that members are serving or ex-EOs when they join, such personal information are immediately discarded. Still, many members use their real name when writing and all mail are respectable. I would suggest that colleagues could choose their own user name in EGRIN and keep their real name from others if they wish. The registration record could be kept confidential by the administrator, for witch hunting only when absolutely necessary. The bottom line is: trust us.

The other item discussed was the recognition to colleagues who contribute to EGRIN. The concern was resources and their attractiveness, as if EOs wish to get sufficient benefit in order to contribute to EGRIN. This greatly missed the point. I recall reading a management book on motivation that a CEO wished to reward his subordinate so badly that he just gave him a banana from his lunch box. There is no need to spend time administering a reward scheme; just give everyone who contributed to EGRIN a banana.

To improve the participation and interactiveness in EGRIN, we first need to make the discussion forum busy. The suggestion to encourage access to EGRIN in KIT and departmental meetings are very useful. I would also like to share with anyone who have such desire in mind the experience I have in managing bulletin board and forum.

There are mainly four major tactics.

We need some important people to write in the forum: people that colleagues would be attracted to read from. Perhaps DGG and senior members of the grade could address all colleagues in this manner. In the meantime, we still stick to the old fashion way of letters and memo. It seems to me a bit odd reading in EGRIN a letter in PDF format which should instead be delivered by a postman. Discussion forum has the advantage of instant response. Colleagues will have the opportunity to respond to such high level mail quickly. This could be the way of seeking views on official issues. I think all consultation exercises should be accompanied by such mode of communication.

Second, the forum should be used to discuss topics of interest. This is the way EGRIN forum is being pursued but the result is not encouraging. We need some knowledgeable colleagues to show their faces in order to establish the reputation that EGRIN forum could really help. I put up some interesting topics from time to time, and our colleagues in T&D also did the same. However, there are few readers, not to mention writers. The first thing to do is make the place looks busy. I have suggested all GGO colleagues to take turn to write just one message a day. As follow-up on training sessions, some trainees may be invited personally to express their views. Focus group members could openly discuss their topics in the forum. We can first artificially create a continued dialogue among these groups. This can act as a nucleus to snowball the number of readers and then writers.

Even without any serious discussion on work topics, the discussion forum could be made busy by greetings, congratulations and simple remarks. The very conservative view is that an official forum must not contain non-work-related issues. I wonder if congratulation on promotion is considered non-work-related. EGRIN should be made a meeting place for colleagues, just like colleagues in the office where they do not just discuss work all the time; they also discuss parenting and news.

When there is absolutely no response in a business setting, people make cold calls, just like the phone calls we received from advertising companies, insurance agents, financial consultants, etc. The last move is to address colleagues personally in EGRIN forum and hopefully prompt some responses to improve the traffic. Any small moves above could add up to make EGRIN forum a busy place.