Hong Kong Island’s expansive skyline greets visitors to the office of Josiah Tau, the financial controller of the Hong Kong Police Force. Key to the role is the ability to strike a balance between working within the constraints of government departments and harnessing the best of human resources to deliver the best possible finance-related services.
As one of the 14 assistant directors of accounting services (ADASs) of the Treasury department of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government, Tau has been posted to various government departments since he joined the civil service in 1993. ADAS postings to each department last up to four years, enabling assistant directors to be exposed to different fields. While there are eight ADASs working in the central government offices or the Treasury department headquarters, Tau is among six ADASs in their respective departments who are responsible for a vast portfolio of accounting and financial activities. He began working for the police force in November 2013 and was promoted to the rank of ADAS in September 2014. ‘The six departments are among the largest government departments in Hong Kong and the police force is one of them,’ Tau says. ‘The role of the ADASs in these departments is the equivalent of that of a CFO in a corporation.’
The vision of the Treasury is to ‘lead and excel’ in the provision of accounting and financial management services in the government. ‘In keeping with this vision, we strive to pursue a mission encompassing the department’s core values of professionalism, stewardship and customer-centricity,’ Tau notes. The ADASs oversee such professional activities as financial accounting, cost and management accounting, IT system development, internal audit, and loan and fund management. ‘One unique aspect in the accounting services for the police is forensic accounting. We sometimes contribute to police investigations,’ he adds.
The financial professionals of individual government departments deliver their services within the constraints of financial and human resources. ‘We abide by the expenditure limits approved by the Legislative Council annually. At the same time, we have to deliver the services in accordance with our general and specific goals in the most effective and efficient ways,’ he notes.
Tau counts human resources as the most vital element in the operation of government departments, which maintain tight headcounts and where many civil servants cultivate lifelong careers. Currently, he supervises around 100 staff; among them, 12 are accountants and the rest are semi-professional or clerical staff.
‘Managerial levels in the civil service have to make the best use of the existing human resources by being reasonable and fair to everyone to maintain high morale,’ he says. ‘Even for the less productive individuals, we have to get the best out of them by harnessing their strengths and ignoring their weaknesses.’
To achieve this goal, Tau has sought to understand the motivation of individual staff members; while many are driven to be upwardly mobile, some simply want the security of their jobs and have the responsibility of looking after their families on top of a full-time career. ‘Our ability to foster team spirit and command respect and trust from colleagues is crucial,’ he says. ‘To get the best from the team, a supervisor should leverage on individual subordinates’ strengths. The supervisor should encourage all team members, who are parts of the process, » to contribute their ideas freely. As the supervisor, I show equal appreciation to the contributions made by staff at each level.’
Tau also helps his staff further develop their strengths while overcoming their weaknesses. ‘A supervisor should lead by example. In turn, this will help build up a close-knit, highly effective and strongly motivated team instrumental to the successful execution of any daunting tasks.’
After graduating from the Chinese University of Hong Kong in the late 1970s majoring in accounting, Tau spent the next eight years working in administrative and management accounting positions in the private sector in Hong Kong. He moved to Canada in 1988 and worked as accounting manager in the Toronto HA Community Redevelopment Inc. He returned to Hong Kong in 1993 and joined the Treasury department as a treasury accountant. ‘My greatest interest is always in management accounting,’ he says. ‘I like working on such areas as costing and financial evaluation that lead to decision-making.’
Tau was attracted to a government career because the civil service has little office politics when compared with the commercial sector. ‘Civil servants can make friends with one another because there are little direct conflicts,’ he says. ‘Many of us are acquainted with one another for years because some will work in the government for over 35 years before their retirement. While we may work in different departments, we remain in the same circle. Reputation, good or bad, is always lasting.’
In addition, Tau believes that the promotion mechanism in the civil service is fair and free of any preferential treatment. ‘Generally speaking, we are well aware of individual colleagues’ levels of commitment, sense of responsibility and diligence,’ he says. ‘Rarely is there anyone who will harm the others for the sake of promotion. This is the harmonious work environment that I appreciate the most.’
Tau’s dozen years of experience in the private sector, both in Hong Kong and abroad, have given him the edge in the civil service, as the treasury accountant role has become more customer-oriented and interactive. ‘Our role has evolved from serving as a purely technical expert – someone who just says “yes” or “no” based on technical principles – to a business-adviser-cum-trainer who is ready to pass on some basic financial knowledge and skills to others,’ he explains. With the shift of his role, Tau believes that excellent communication skills have become the prerequisite.
He likens the current role of treasury accountant to that of a medical doctor. ‘A doctor needs to fully explain diagnoses to individual patients,’ he notes. ‘As the accountants working in the government, we are like business advisers. We need to fully explain our decisions and recommend solutions. In our customer-oriented approach, we aim to help the recipients of our information to acquire full understanding. We want them to appreciate the rationale behind the decisions or recommendations and learn good practice.
‘My experience is that I usually use simple, layman language to explain complex concepts. When those I communicate with receive this information as well as the basic financial knowledge involved and are able to pass the information and knowledge onto their supervisors, they are really appreciative of my efforts; this gives me great job satisfaction,’ he says. ‘We use the kind of language and data formats that our audience will understand. Good English writing skills are therefore essential.’
Planning, analysis, communication
Over the past 22 years in the government, Tau has encountered many challenges and every time he has overcome them with immaculate planning, thorough analysis from multiple perspectives, and excellent communication skills. While he was working for the University Grants Committee (UGC), for example, the government announced in its 2008-09 Budget that it would set up an unprecedented HK$18bn Research Endowment Fund to support research by local UGC-funded institutions.
Racing against a short period of time, Tau’s team needed to carry out the setup of the fund, thorough evaluation of the investment tools and investment house, and the execution of a trust in compliance with legal, financial and operational requirements. ‘There was zero tolerance of any mistake,’ he recalls.
Tau’s team laid the groundwork of comprehensive preliminary work, anticipated numerous issues that might arise and proposed solutions throughout the entire process. With his great communication skills, he ensured all parties involved were properly briefed and fully understood the daunting task at hand. As a result, the fund was established without a hitch.
Another challenge arose while he worked in the Transport and Housing Bureau between 2009 and 2013. Tau and his team were responsible for responding to a case for arbitration that would decide whether to approve the application for a toll rise by the then operator of the Eastern Harbour Crossing. The toll was last raised substantially in 2005, while losses in two previous arbitrations subjected the government to intense pressure. The meticulous planning and strong analysis were supplemented with effective legal tactics by Tau’s team. ‘We looked carefully at the internal rate of return of the tunnel operator and identified key financial factors that hinged on the lower inflation rate in the 2000s compared with the preceding decades,’ he explains.
The government won the case this time. ‘This gave me immense satisfaction because the further toll rise could have had a big impact on the general public,’ he notes. For these two challenges, among many other occasions, Tau was required to help top government officials at high-level meetings. His commitment and resourcefulness impressed the senior officials and his subsequent promotion has reflected their appreciation for his capability.
While Tau’s career is quite unlike those of the other senior civil servants because most would join the government soon after university graduation, he considers his promotions through the ranks fairly typical. He also recognises that the ACCA Qualification, which he earned shortly after graduation from university, has helped him throughout his professional career.
‘Because the qualification is recognised internationally, I got employed in Toronto,’ he says. ‘It has also helped me as I was posted in the various government departments in Hong Kong.’
Wilson Lau, journalist
This article originally appeared in Accounting and Business magazine. Read the original article