Thursday, July 28, 2011

Boss and Master

The trendy words these few days are Boss and Master.  This is a very revealing and stimulating remark by the Mainland official making a lot of Hong Kong people jumping out to defend, for various reasons. Although each has his own angle, this remark actually has very deep meaning for civil servants and Executive Officers.

Are we now bosses and masters of Hong Kong after the handover?  Before 1997, Hong Kong was a colony of the United Kingdom, ruled by colonial officials who were mostly civil servants as well.  However, many local policies were made by local senior civil servants.  But they did not consider themselves as bosses and masters with the Queen of England above their heads.  Now Hong Kong is a city of China enjoying special administrative region status.  We still make our own local policies but they are not very effective leading to the criticism that we cannot take care of our own house.  In principle, since the handover, the governance of Hong Kong changed from an autocratic style to a more democratic style.  We can hardly expect the ability of civil servants to disappear immediately upon the switch, but the changed political environment does make policy making more controversial.

Civil servants are certainly not bosses and masters to the society.  The modern sense of the civil service is servants to the general public.  In fact, what civil servants do are services to the public.  Boss and master in a generalized sense is that Hong Kong is not governed by the United Kingdom any more, and that the "Hong Kong people" are now bosses and masters of our own affairs.  If we focus on governance, a better way to say it is that we have the balance of three powers: executive, legislative and judicial.  For that, executive power means the "elected" officials, at least under an elected Chief Executive.

The question of policy formulation and policy implementation has been haunting us for a long time.  Many colleagues are aggrieved by the structure of the management of the government where Administrative Officers and Executive Officers are in separate grades although the basic job requirements are the same.  Executive Officers are deliberately suppressed as the middle management without any opportunity to advance to the top level.  One flimsy reason put forward then was that the two grades perform different functions:  Administrative Officers for policy formulation and Executive Officers for policy implementation.  We have been under this spell for quite some time.  Times are a-changing.  Now senior civil servants and Administrative Officers are relegated to performing policy implementation as well.

I was reading Peter Drucker in the last few weeks.  His theories on management and governance do not segregate policy formulation and implementation.  He advocates partnership and considers execution to be the most important action.  All ideas should come from front-line managers who really know what is going on around.  He thinks the most important leadership quality is putting people as the most important asset.  In his idiom, purposes and objectives are set by those from the outside, and there is a constant interactive relation between goal setting and real action.

This reminds me of the book Yes Minister which tells accurately, in a comical way, the relationship between cabinet ministers and civil servants in the United kingdom government.  Cabinet ministers are like our directors of bureau who are said to be policy makers.  In fact, the minister's office is very thin.  All support on resources, information and analyses, i.e. the meat of policy making, come from civil servants.  So the minister is steered by the civil servants based on the perceived popularity of a policy, and has to take the blame of failed policy.  Cabinets come and go, but the civil service stays put.  Actually, the civil servants are the policy makers, policy implementers, bosses and masters of the country all in one.

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【明報專訊】王光亞昨日於北京與60名赴京參與「大學生外交夏令營」的香港學生對話,對他們提出針對本港貧富懸殊、經濟發展,以及特首選舉的提問 均有問必答。被問及本港當前面對的深層矛盾為何時,王光亞主動提及本港師承英國的公務員制度。王光亞直言香港「成也英國,敗也英國」,指在港英治 下,英國人主導香港事務,培養出的香港公務員水平雖高,但只懂接受及執行指令,「完全培養的是civil servant (公僕),而未能培養對香港未來發展,加以政治上設計和長遠規劃的人才」。

他批評,縱然香港已回歸10多年,大部分公務員的心態卻是「叫我做什麼就做什麼…他們過去是聽Boss(老闆),現在自己當了Boss,都不知道 怎樣當Boss,怎樣當個Master(主人)」。他認為,特區政府應按香港的情况作長遠設計及規劃,各級官員更應「不僅把今天的事做好,而是要 把香港明天、後天,2年、3年、5年、10年以後的事要想好,設定好目標,自己設定政策,包括人才的培養,面向目標向前走」。

前保安局長、現立法會議員葉劉淑儀同意王光亞的言論,認為他「想得很通透」。她稱,香港公務員以效率及辦事能力高聞名,但欠缺當領導的視野及膽 識。葉太相信王光亞不是基於兩三件事件就貿然批評公務員,而是總結香港回歸後14年的經驗「有感而發」。不過,中大政治與行政學系高級導師蔡子強 認為,本港發展問責制,將制訂長遠政策的責任交予司局級官員,才是導致公務員缺乏方向的主因,他批評王光亞的言論「斷錯症,落錯藥」,對公務員有 欠公道。
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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Terror attack in Norway

Just got back from a wonderful trip in Italy and heard the sad news in Norway. Norway is a beautiful place, peaceful and natural. But the world is not perfect and there are always disasters happening somewhere everyday. We live in a changing planet and natural disasters have been with the human kind for more than a million years. The sad thing about this one is that it is not a natural disaster but a man-made one. Someone deliberately did harm to other human beings for a special purpose.

Everybody is now blame seeking. First they put the blame to the Al Qaeda, and then to Islamic extremists, and then to right wing extremists. There are many supposed reasons put forward and self-claimed theories on conflicts arising from history, cultural differences and religious differences. But history has been with us for a long long time and we often see different cultures and different religions existed together peacefully. The world is diverse and differences are in our daily life. It is not an excuse for such man-made disaster for any difference in customs and opinions.

The truth is being revealed gradually. The culprit was apprehended and his background exposed. It is a case of human poisoned by religion and he relegated himself back ten centuries to the age of the crusaders. He called himself a member of the knights templar whose mission in life was to get rid of Muslims and everybody else being friendly to them. This kind of christian supremacy is of course a sick mind. Ten centuries ago, Europe was in chaos, suffering from the plague and warfare. The lie created by religion was that the reason for the turmoil being the fall of Jerusalem to the Muslims. This lie led to two hundred years of the war of the Crusaders, loss of many lives and great suffering to a lot of people, especially to those in the holy land. The ill effect of this lie still lingers today as illustrated by this sad case. It is very dangerous for man pretending to be god.

Monday, July 11, 2011

東亞運超支

上星期大新聞,是政府帳目委員會發表報告,大張旗鼓譴責民政事務局舉辦東亞運動會嚴重超支。這個事件在三月審計署發表報告和政府帳目委員會公開聆訊時已被廣泛報導。民政事務局雖然極力解釋,但在壓力下仍要認錯。大家都預期舉行國際級賽事所需費用很大,卻有無形收益對香港有利,但審計報告一出,大家的印象就是開支太大而浪費,而民政事務局的財務管理大有問題。

看看譴責的要點,卻又令人有點摸不著頭腦。民政事務局的主要罪行有二,一是嚴重超支,二是容許東亞運公司將一千萬元盈餘撥去體育發展基金。究竟舉辦東亞運動會是賺錢還是蝕本,這兩個相反的結果不可能同時出現。政府會計是用現金結算,沒有銀行貸款或透支安排,如果現金不足難道有承辦商收不到付款或員工收不到薪金?這個公共財務管理問題是一個很好的管理學課題。

首先是東亞運公司盈餘的運用,盈餘就是用剩的現金,不可能超支而又有盈餘。被譴責的是撥出盈餘去傳承項目。傳承是一個非常高貴的名詞,是有一個優良傳統或有價值的貢獻而要傳給後人承接以發揚光大。東亞運動會對香港體育有貢獻,用其盈餘以傳承下去很有意義。各位議員極力指責後,被傳媒質問就反口說有價值,再指民政事務局程序不合。議事廳於是放棄了政策目的而淪為公務員式的程序機器。

東亞運公司生意頭腦其實不錯,最初估計收入是一億一千萬元,但結果收入是一億八千萬元,連同政府注資一億一千多萬元,資金有二億九千多萬元。但其支出只有二億八千多萬元,包括傳承項目;盈餘尚有一千多萬元。東亞運公司似乎應記一功。

那麼超支是什麼一回事?首先,審計署說東亞運公司的開支比預算數目大了百分之二十,所以算超支;但卻沒有說收入更增大了百分之五十四,引致結果有盈餘。這是一間公司,營運有如此成績真是令人佩服。但審計署用政府部門開支與收入分離結算法,不理收入多少,開支大了就算賺錢都要譴責。

另一個更重要的論點是其他部門的支出都納入計算開支,所以大大超支一億三千多萬元。這個說法極之偏離現時的政府財務安排和撥款機制。將所有數目都算在民政事務局頭上,當然是超支。但真相是支出從來沒有超出預算,每一項預算都是經過立法會正式批准的。審計報告指出了幾個主要支出。

** 康文署用了一千七百多萬元為東亞運動會宣傳。宣傳體育活動是康文署日常工作,而支出其實是在該署每年正常開支預算之內,並不需要額外申請開支撥款。

** 康文署收到中央撥款二千四百多萬元用以聘請臨時員工。該筆撥款其實是政府為解決失業問題而設立的臨時就業計劃的一部份,原意並不是為東亞運動會而設。

** 康文署職員和借調的公務員為東亞運動會工作的薪酬為三千一百多萬元。這不是額外支出,各部門已有開支預算支付原有員工的薪酬。

** 建築署為改良體育場地的工程支出為四千二百多萬元。這些改善工程項目是經立法會財務委員會正式批准撥款,而當時她亦知悉改善場地除了為舉行東亞運動會,亦對各項運動未來發展有幫助。

** 建築署用了四百多萬元改裝部份香港壁球場作為辦公室。該筆費用是在建築署的小型工程頂目之內,並無額外撥款。

因為這幾項支出,審計報告提出了全部成本和額外直接支出的概念。全部成本不是新鮮事物,很多會計報表都會包括這一個項目,就算是政府申請撥款增加人手都會在薪金支出之外再加上福利開支。但在向議會申請撥款的層面,要求的撥款只能限於該管制人員權力範圍之內,其他開支就需要由其他服務的管制人員申請。東亞運動會的個案正是這樣,民政事務局、康文署和建築署都各有開支需要。政府帳目委員會是在指責民政事務局為何不負責統籌一切支出,這和政府現在的分工安排和財務分項制度不同。各個政策局和各部門的工作優先次序各有不同,如要一個政策局統籌其他政策局的資源在執行上和制度上要有很大的改革,而且效果成疑。

額外直接支出的界定亦很模糊。雖然一些全職調動的支出可以肯定為東亞運動會開支,但很多人員和服務範疇是存在已久,內部資源調動或兼任工作不能說是直接支出,最多只能說對東亞運動會的工作有利。尤其是這些支出原意不是為東亞運動會而設,沒有東亞運動會都會有支出。更甚者是如果要在計劃初期就已經估計這些開支是相當不切實際,因為內部調動資源通常都是為應付突發的需要。

雖然民政事務局唯唯諾諾,又說將來會盡量配合,但我覺得事在不能而非不為。未來的大型項目,政策局只能在實際申請撥款的數目外另加註腳,說可能有另外支出但估計數目只能虛構。

Saturday, July 9, 2011

基督教臻美社會服務機構

基督教臻美社會服務機構近年引起滿城風雨,旗下黃乾亨小學停辦,最近廉政公署通緝其主席,事件由管理問題正式轉為刑事案件。黃乾亨小學是真接資助學校,收了政府資助又可再收取學費,在學校管理和教學上有自主權。這類型的學校是教育改革的一個範疇,被標榜為提昇香港教育質素的方法,所以政府鼓勵推行。黃乾亨小學的校務建議書寫得很理想,教育改革的要點都包括在內。首先被說服的是黃英琦,加入校董會大力推動建校;接下來是羅范焦芬,以黃乾亨小學為真資學校模範代表。

究竟事情發展是何時變得醜惡呢?黃乾亨小學開始時根據建議書推行新穎的教學方法,是教育界採訪的對象。不知是否校長發現斂財機會而忽然起貪念,還是處心積慮先獲取信任再行欺騙?外人看校監校長,總會錯誤地以為他們一定是正直人士;就算不是,都會錯誤地認為堂堂一個社會服務機構沒有可能有欺詐行為;更而且是一間基督教組織,更會錯誤地認定可以信任。問題是犯罪的責任可以追溯到那裡。

我嘗試尋找基督教臻美社會服務機構的底細,但它原有的資訊網頁pagasus.org.hk已全部被刪除,舊有的登記資料是黃乾亨小學校長兩夫婦為主席和幹事,董事局內只有一位牧師。由此看來,基督教臻美社會服務機構是設計出來作為辦學團體,兩者關係二而為一。但它和基督教有什麼關係,是否由基督教指使而設立的機構呢?香港基督教組織的資訊不難找到, hkchurch.org 和 jgospel.net都是詳盡的基督教指南。前者說它的工作有小學、幼稚園、青少年活動中心、勞工和青年服務,後者更介紹辦學理念和活動,但都和宗教無關。

我向一些基督教朋友詢問,他們全部都否認和他們的教會有任何關係,亦不知道基督教臻美社會服務機構屬於那一個基督教會;這個機構可能是一個假教會,或只是借基督教的名義作招徠。世態炎涼,有事時大家都割蓆,曾幾何時,很多基督教刊物和宣傳都歌頌它,現時仍然很容易就可以在網上找到這些舊資料。

一位天主教的朋友解釋,說這些事件在基督教很容易發生。首先,所有神職人員不經教宗或主教祝聖,和中國大陸一樣由該教會自行安排。基督教有無數教派,各自為政。因為缺乏一個統一的組織,傳道資格很難確定,自己說是上帝吩咐的就可算了。好處是內部管理有自由,但有分歧的時侯很難解決。就算是最基本的聖經詮釋,都會有不理解、誤解或曲解的情形而無權威可糾正。一些歷史悠久的教派聲譽較好,但有一些細小和新興的教派可能對信徒有危險。最大的問題是現時香港政府對此沒有明確的政策,天主教有教區統籌,但任何人都可聲稱是基督教而以宗教名義登記為法定團體然後進行籌款活動和商業活動,還可申請免稅。去到利益層面就更複雜,註冊為公司的團體還需要有法例規定的會計報表,但社團註冊就沒有這個要求,而且這些公司和團體的財務資料不一定要公開。這些鬆散的管理引致漏洞百出,被揭發的欺詐行為只是冰山一角,現時只能倚靠機構的聲譽,但這亦不保證,剛剛浸信會就被指帳目不清引致其核數師拒絕簽妥財務報告。

時代進步,人們不再盲目相信世間財產其實是屬於上帝而無條件奉獻教會。人們會問捐出的錢去了那裡,是否用得其所,最大的疑問是有多少是行政費用。 世界各地都有組織做這些調查工作,香港亦有社聯和idonate,他們要求各機構提高透明度,公開財務報告,分析機構提供服務的成本和效率。雖然力量仍很少,但已經提高了大家對欺詐和善心被利用的警覺性。

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Paradox of Choice

The Paradox of Choice
Why More is Less
by Barry Schwartz

This book was published in 2004. At that time, it was a hit. The book summed up the results of some researches on the psychology of decision making, that the abundance of choices in the modern world had made the decision made less satisfying. Books came and went. Last year I found an used one selling at $20 at a charity stall. It was really value for money. Making a decision on buying it was satisfying, there being no other choice at that time. However, the book took me a long time to read. It seems much more information are now available on the Internet which require more time to explore. For this one, at least I tried to finish reading it before books become an endangered species.

http://raympoon.playgroundhk.com/video/choice.jpg

In 2004, I thought just before the publishing of this book, Barry Schwartz had an article on a science journal, perhaps for the purpose of drumming up his book. The article was The Tyranny of Choice. I had some reading notes on it in my blog which were in fact materials in the first few chapters of the book.

Tyranny of choice 14 June 2004. Too much choices may give you trouble and less satisfaction. But it depends on your personality that whether you are a maximizer or a satisficer.

Maximization scale 14 June 2004. A self test questionnaire that may help you identify yourself your position on the maximization scale, i.e. whether you are a dedicated maximizer or a balanced consumer.

Advice on choice 18 June 2004. Some useful tips on choice making. The purpose is not to let you make choice easier, but just to relieve the sense of guilt from making a wrong decision or be content with the choice you made.

The author gave a detailed account in the book of what affects us in making choice and also what affects us in not making choice. Such dilemma of choosing between two or more comparable products or services, or choosing between many evils, may have a detrimental effect on our mental health. The satisfaction of making a choice is affected by many phenomenon. Some apparent ones identified are the opportunity costs, social comparison, expectation and adaptation. To maintain a balanced mind when making or not making choice, the author offered some useful pointers on what to do about choice.

1. Choose when to choose
To manage the problem of excessive choice, we must first decide which choices in our life really matter and focus our time and energy there, and just let many other opportunities pass us by. By restricting our options, we will be able to choose less and feel better.

2. Be a chooser, not a picker
A picker is forced to pick one thing among several laid on the table. A chooser knows what he really wants to do with something and chooses one that fits the purpose. If there is none that does, a chooser may create better options that do.

3. Satisfice more and maximize less
Be a satisficer and settle for just good enough. This is easy said than done because settling for just good enough could mean losing the better alternatives, if there is any. But to maximize and search for the best is very demanding on time and resources, sometimes to the point that it isn't worth it. However, being a satisficer is a state of mind that either comes with one's personality or requires some mental training.

4. Think about the opportunity costs of opportunity costs
Opportunity costs are high especially where there are a lot of options. You will be losing other, just presumably better, opportunities once a decision is made. Considering opportunity costs is already opportunity cost in itself. To lower the cost which may lead to less satisfaction, one may consider the strategies of limiting options such as: Unless truly dissatisfied, stick with what you always buy; Don't be tempted by the new and improved versions; Don't scratch unless there is an itch; Don't worry that you will miss out on all the new things the world has to offer. 

5. Make your decisions non-reversible
When one is dissatisfied with a choice, there may be a mental process of reversing the decision and choose again. If a decision is not reversible, such as many important decisions we made in our life, we may learn to accept and thus increase the satisfaction.

6. Practice an attitude of gratitude
We could vastly improve our subjective experience by consciously striving to be grateful for what is good about a choice. We normally do the reverse by thinking about how good the alternatives are, but take the present good choice for granted. The attitude of gratitude may need a little practice.

7. Regret less
The pain of regret has impact on choice and sometimes influences us to avoid making decisions at all. To lessen the effect of regret, we may try to adopt the standards of a satisficer more, reduce the number of options to be considered, and practice gratitude on the good side rather than focus on disappointments. 

8. Anticipate adaptation
We always adapt to the satisfaction of a decision, and it becomes less satisfying with time. This is called the "hedonic treadmill" which may lead to regret. We cannot prevent adaptation, but we can anticipate adaptation and develop realistic expectations.

9. Control expectations
Our evaluation of experience is substantially influenced by how it compares with our expectations. A way to increasing satisfaction with the results of decisions is to remove excessive high expectations about them. This can be done by reducing the options, be a satisficer and also allow for serendipity.

10. Curtail social comparison
We evaluate the quality of our experience by comparing ourselves to others. Though social comparison can provide useful information, it often reduces our satisfaction. So by comparing with other less, we will be satisfied more.

11. Learn to love constraints
As the number of choices we face increases, freedom of choice becomes a tyranny of choice. One way to deal with the problem is to view limits on the possibilities we face as liberating not constraining. Society has rules, standards and norms for making choices. Individual experience creates habits. By deciding to follow a rule (such as wearing seat belt), we avoid having to make a deliberate decision again and again. This kind of rule-following frees up time and attention that can be devoted to thinking about choices and decisions.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Well done Greece today, but you are Sisyphus

I read the commentary by a financial analyst on the Greek national debt crisis. His view was pessimistic, although Europe just heralded a success of the Greek parliament in passing a resolution and the laws needed for austerity measures to be taken.

What the Greek parliament did today was just a promise to save more and spend less, thus fulfilling a request by the European Union for lending bailout funds so that the Greek government could avoid default of the national debts due next month. Should Greece default payment of the national debts, many creditors would suffer heavy losses. Many of these creditors are the central banks of European countries, holding from $100 billion to $300 billion Greek debts. The present bailout would enable the Greek national finance to carry on, thus relieving the pressure on the banking systems of many European countries. These countries were not congratulating Greece, they felt lucky that they would be safe for the time being.

The real meaning of the bailout is merely the continuation of treating insolvency as if it were only a liquidity crisis. The Greek government is like Sisyphus who is condemned to roll a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down again just before reaching the top. She has only survived one crisis in order to face the next, and will continue to face this Sisyphean task, unless or until someone such as a strong neighbour takes the boulder away or it succumbs to exhaustion and defaults all the debts.

Notwithstanding the promised austerity measures, Greece has to find a way to grow its way out of debt for the solvency issue to be properly tackled. The only durable solutions are default, outside assistance or currency devaluation so that Greece can become internationally competitive and earn enough overseas revenue to service and then pay back its debts.

The present bailout action by the European countries is only following a course of managed default. They are using liquidity measures as a way of trying to delay a default for as long as possible, in the hope that the banking system will be better placed to deal with it later. However, such delay in the form of bailout funds would mean shifting more peripheral debts from the private sector into the hands of European central banks. The outside assistance is now taking the form of lending Greece money at a lower interest rate. It is better for the loans to bear no interest, or for the Euro countries to take the responsibility of paying back a proportion of Greece's debt. It is doubtful that their political leaders could sell such a plan to their voters.

The attempt Greece is now taking is to become internationally competitive by reducing nominal wages very aggressively. But the Greek population is unlikely to comply with this approach. Eventually someone has to consider a far faster way to achieve international competitiveness; that is by currency devaluation. A small part of this may come owing to Euro weakness. However, the scale of devaluation that Greece needs can only come from exiting the Euro.

The problem with exiting the Euro is that the Euro-denominated debts would become even larger in currency conversion, and this would consequently trigger a default. A default would in turn wipe out a large portion of the capital held by the Greek banking system, which would have to be recapitalised, and would also have severe impact to the financial systems of other European countries.

Sisyphus is carrying on for the time being. It now depends on how long he could sustain the repeated tasks. There is no myth today, and Greece is not as strong as Sisyphus after all.