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LCQ16: Civil servants' performance and potential assessed systematically and objectively

Following is a question by the Hon Li Fung Ying on civil servants' performance and a w ritten reply by the Secretary for the Civil Service, Mr Joseph W P Wong, in the Legislative Council today (February 2):

Question:

Regarding the management of civil servants' work performance, will the Government inform this Council:

(a)  of the following in each of the years since 2001:

(i)  the number of civil servants who were not granted an increment as a result of their work performance being assessed as unsatisfactory, with a breakdown by their departments, ranks, years of service and the manners in which the increment was not granted (i.e. stoppage or deferment of increment); the specific circumstances in which their performance was unsatisfactory; and the resultant amount of savings in remuneration expenses; and

(ii)  the number of appeals received from such civil servants against their not being granted an increment, with a breakdown by their departments, ranks, years of service, and the outcome of such appeals;

(b)  in addition to stoppage or deferment of increment, of the alternatives for handling cases in which a civil servant's work performance is assessed as unsatisfactory; the number of civil servants who were subject to each of these alternatives in the past three years, with a breakdown by their departments, ranks and years of service for each of these alternatives; and the number of appeals lodged by the civil servants against the penalties imposed on them, as well as the outcome of these appeals;

(c)  whether it has analysed the overall work performance of civil servants in recent years; if it has, of the phenomena and problems identified by the analysis, and the follow-up actions to be taken; if not, whether it will consider conducting such an analysis; and

(d)  whether it has conducted a comprehensive assessment on the current management of civil servants' work performance; if it has, of the assessment results; and whether it has considered introducing improvement measures, including overhauling the work performance management system of civil servants; if it has not conducted such assessment, of the reasons for that, and whether it will do so, if it will, of the details and the implementation date?

Reply:

Madam President,

(a)(i) The performance of a civil servant must meet the required standard during the appraisal period in order that he may earn an increment on his next incremental date if he has not yet reached the maximum pay point of his rank. If the supervisor of such an officer does not certify that the officer's performance has been satisfactory during the appraisal period, the officer will not be paid any increment from his next incremental date for a period of three to six months. The supervisor will review the officer's performance during the period when the payment of increment is stopped. If the officer has failed to make any marked improvement in his performance, the increment will continue to be withheld. In addition, his incremental date will be deferred and he will accordingly lose seniority.

A summary of such cases (be it a case of stoppage of increment, or stoppage of increment with deferment of incremental date) which have been recorded since 2001 on account of unsatisfactory performance is given in Appendix 1. The specific manner in which each concerned officer was deficient in his performance varies. In general, these officers received a fifth or sixth-level overall rating on a six-level performance scale in an appraisal report, or two fourth-level overall ratings in two consecutive appraisal reports.

(ii)  If an officer feels aggrieved about the management's decision to stop his increment or to stop his increment with deferment of his incremental date, he may appeal to officers holding senior management positions in his department, the grade management concerned or the Civil Service Bureau. Between 2001 and 2004, there were nine unsuccessful appeals against  decisions to stop either an officer's increment or an officer's increment with deferment of his incremental date. These nine cases involved staff from seven ranks and five departments.  We do not have information on any successful appeal over the same period.

(b)  In addition to stoppage or deferment of increment, the Administration may retire an officer in the public interest under Section 12 of the Public Service (Administration) Order ("PS(A)O") if his substandard performance persists. Over the past three years (2002 to 2004), 26 officers were required to retire in the public interest under Section 12 of the PS(A)O for persistent substandard performance. The bureaux/ departments to which these officers belonged and their ranks are detailed in Appendix 2. Their average length of service is about 14 years (ranging from seven to 33 years). Over the same period, there were six appeal cases. Five of the appeals had been dismissed. The remaining one is being processed.

(c)  In the past few years, Hong Kong experienced a series of challenges associated with the economic setback caused by external factors and domestic structural problems. The civil service has striven hard to come up with more efficient means of service delivery at a time when the public sector, like the business sector and the rest of the community, is facing severe budgetary constraints and extensive down-sizing. Following two rounds of voluntary retirement and conscious efforts on the part of departments to streamline and delayer their organisation, the overall size of the civil service establishment has gone down from the peak of 198 000 posts to 167 300 at the end of 2004. Notwithstanding the pressure created by the shrinkage in manpower and financial resources, the ever rising expectations of the public we serve and such unforeseen challenges as the SARS, our civil service as a whole remains dedicated to serving the community and there has been no slackening in overall efficiency.

In 2003, the Civil Service Bureau conducted a relatively comprehensive analysis of the performance scores of staff in over 300 grades and 900 ranks(Note 1). The results show that, on average, over 90 per cent of our civil servants received the third grade or above while less than 1 per cent obtained the fourth grade or below in terms of overall performance. These figures indicate that the vast majority of our civil servants measure up in terms of both commitment to the betterment of our community and performance. We are taking appropriate actions to manage under-performers, including requiring an officer to retire in the public interest in the event of persistent substandard performance.

We also attach importance to third-party assessment on the performance of our civil service. The Political and Economic Risk Consultancy Ltd has conducted annual surveys in which expatriates working in Asia are asked to rate the performance of civil service in the region. According to the survey findings in 2004 (please refer to Appendix 4 for details), Hong Kong civil servants continue to top the list for being the least bureaucratic. Whilst our score on efficiency has dropped slightly relative to 2002 and 2003, the outcome of the survey firmly places our civil service amongst the finest in Asia. Separate public opinion surveys taken in the last three years have also indicated that, on average, over 75 per cent of Hong Kong people are satisfied with the overall efficiency of our civil service.

All in all, our civil service is highly efficient and professional, and widely regarded as one of the cleanest in the world.

That is of course not to say that our civil service is free from mistakes in the past few years. Whenever there is a case of mismanagement, we always take any criticisms in stride and encourage staff at all levels to turn them into positive impetus for us to strive even harder for improvement.

We are taking the following proactive measures to maintain the high quality of the services provided by our civil servants, and to build a people-based civil service that is committed to meeting public demands for prompt and efficient services:

(1)  Provide incentive and give commendation

On top of giving due recognition to outstanding performers through promotion or commendation under the existing appraisal system, we will give further tribute and encouragement to staff with exemplary service through the departmental Commendation Letter Scheme and the Secretary for the Civil Service's Commendation Scheme. To motivate civil servants to further upgrade the quality of their service, we will also further promote and expand the ambit of the Civil Service Customer Service Award Scheme.

(2)  Provide effective training

To help sustain improvements to the overall performance of the civil service, the Government is committed to providing civil servants with robust training and development opportunities. The Government spends about one billion dollars annually on civil service training, providing a wide range of relevant courses, learning opportunities and sponsorship schemes for officers at different levels. All civil servants, be they frontline staff or middle and senior managers, are encouraged to pursue continuous learning in their own time so as to further enhance their resilience and capacity for meeting changes.

(3)  Improve performance management

Continuous efforts are being made to promote a performance-based service culture. For example, we will consult the Public Service Commission and the staff side in early 2005 on proposals to further streamline the procedures for handling persistent substandard performers. We will also conduct a comprehensive review of existing guidelines on performance management.

(d)  The Government attaches great importance to performance management. A comprehensive performance management system enables staff to have a clear understanding of the work targets of their department and the standard of performance expected of them. The strengths and weaknesses of individual staff as revealed in performance appraisal give management an informed basis to determine their training and development needs as well as how best to motivate them to give of their best to their work. Based on the appraisal results, management can take appropriate administrative measures, such as arranging acting/development opportunities for or promoting outstanding performers whilst poor performers are screened out for appropriate corrective actions.

Under the existing system, the supervisor will communicate the expected standard of performance to the appraisee at the beginning of the appraisal cycle. At the end of the appraisal period, the appraisee's performance will be assessed against the standards agreed beforehand. Appraisal reports are usually countersigned by an officer who is at least two substantive ranks above the appraisee. After the appraisee has read the appraisal report, either the supervisor or the countersigning officer will interview him and review with him the various aspects of his performance. If the appraisee considers that the assessment is not objective, he may state his views and the interviewing officer is required to report the same in the interview record. The appraisee may also make a written request for a review of the performance assessment. Finally, the appraisal report will be reviewed by the Head of Grade or his delegate. Assessment panels authorised to undertake levelling and moderating work among appraisal reports may make amendments to an appraisal report in the interest of ensuring parity of assessment. The appraisee will be notified of any such amendments and the reasons for them.

To ensure that the appraisal results can truly reflect civil servants' actual work performance, we have impressed upon departmental supervisors the importance of having performance appraisal that is honest, fair, impartial and accurate. We shall, where necessary, provide assistance to individual departments to step up training efforts with regard to the specific needs of their staff. On-going efforts are being made to ensure that supervisory staff at all levels are made aware of their responsibilities (and suitably trained) in supervising, coaching and monitoring performance management in a fair and effective manner. We have encouraged departments to establish assessment panels to monitor and undertake moderating and levelling work among appraisal reports. Departments are also encouraged to adopt a target-oriented and competency-based approach in performance management so as to inculcate a result-oriented management culture. 

We consider that the existing mechanism as a whole allows civil servants' performance and potential to be assessed in a systematic and objective manner. The system has worked well. Nonetheless, we will keep the system under regular review to ensure that it remains appropriate for meeting the demands of our time.

(Note 1)  At present, most departments adopt a six-level performance scale in the appraisal report. For details, please refer to Appendix 3.

Wednesday, February 2, 2005

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