When Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, chief executive of the former British colony, announced that she was considering setting up a civil service academy, it wasn’t just Hong Kong’s public servants who sat up and took notice.

Employing around 170,000 staff – out of a population of seven million – the city’s civil service is widely admired. Set up under British rule, it is largely regarded as efficient, honest and diligent, and its members generally deserving of their generous salaries and benefits. And while the civil service comes in for criticism from time to time, it is streets ahead of its counterpart in mainland China, which is still suffering from a Communist-inspired quality hangover.

Lam experienced her flash of inspiration on a flying visit to Singapore’s Civil Service College, during her first official overseas trip since taking office in July this year. As Hong Kong is sometimes accused of being second-best to Singapore, her proposal was greeted with interest, particularly a remark she made that stressed Hong Kong civil servants needed to “think outside the box”.

“My experience at the Singapore Civil Service College was enlightening,” said Lam earlier this month. “I really want to explore setting up a dedicated civil service academy in Hong Kong to provide more training for our civil servants, especially in areas such as leadership, public participation, and in terms of the application and use of technology.”

She added that the special administrative region’s civil service deserved a better-resourced training facility in the face of new challenges, and there are plans for Hong Kong’s Secretary for the Civil Service Joshua Law Chi-kong to visit the Singapore college soon to learn more.

Lam also visited Singapore’s GovTech Hive, the government’s innovation laboratory for digital services. She told senior technology and communications officials that, although Hong Kong had an Office of the Government Chief Information Officer, it was nothing like GovTech Hive, which had recruited a considerable number of top data scientists to help authorities embrace new technologies.

Lam said she had found it difficult to push Hong Kong officials to use new technologies and share data. “I am not criticising my own civil service colleagues when I make that comment,” she said. “But you will understand that in any institution which has been well established for many years and doing things in the same way for many years, especially when we are subject to resource constraints, it is not easy to think outside of the box and to try new ways.”

Lam’s announcement has been greeted cautiously by civil servants – but HR professionals have noted Hong Kong’s need for more tech-savvy workers. “We have seen a steady demand for technology professionals in Hong Kong directly related to facilitating digital mobility and online user experience,” said Howard Chan, regional director for HR specialists Michael Page.

“This has resulted in job opportunities for programmers, mobile apps and software developers. With every business across industries from financial services to FMCG [Fast Moving Consumer Goods] amplifying their online and mobile efforts to reach more consumers, hiring managers have also shown a keen interest towards attracting cyber security professionals in Hong Kong,” he told People Management.

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