Shroud of secrecy surrounds decision makers

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 February, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 February, 2001, 12:00am

PUBLIC OPINIONS are sought by the Government on matters ranging from toothache to heartache, on subjects medical, theatrical, ethical, mechanical, logical and electrical. It wants people to tell it about fisheries, film-making, fire safety and fighting crime.

It has established commissions, panels, boards, committees, councils, authorities and tribunals on everything from organ transplants to postage stamps. Name a subject, and it's an even money bet that some group examines it.

All well and good. But does anybody pay heed to this tidal wave of advice, this flood of recommendations? Do the 370 major advisory groups and statutory bodies and their 5,000 members make a real contribution? Or are they window dressing, a vague promise that the Government wants public input?

Opinions differ. James Lu Shien-hwai, executive director of the Hong Kong Hotels Association and a veteran of numerous advisory bodies, says boards have differing lifespans and objectives. Some are set up to ponder a specific problem. Mr Lu points to the inbound-travel agency issue. An advisory board incorporating travel experts was set up. It discussed the issues, called for professional views, held consultations and made recommendations which were incorporated into the eventual bill put before the Legislative Council. Its work done, the board was dissolved. Others, like advisory bodies on environment and heritage, are continuous.

Mr Lu says board members get the chance to have their say. 'People lobby support for their views. Sometimes, advisory boards operate like a mini-Legco,' he says.

Whether government takes views seriously and acts on them depends very much on the quality of advice and the majority consensus.

'There is no guarantee that people will always be heard and see their advice taken,' Mr Lu explains. 'Some people represent very narrow interests with totally unacceptable views. Others are less patient and feel frustration when their views are not heard. It's a give-and-take situation.'

Inevitably, a few people tend to dominate advisory boards, trying to bulldoze through their views. Realistically, people sitting on such bodies know government invariably holds a broad position. It is the role of boards to fine-tune policies and measures.

Some groups work quietly, their decisions invariably implemented. Professor Chan Tai-kwong, a member of the Aids Trust Fund set up in 1993, says 400 projects have been supported. The mostly non-official members make executive decisions rather than proffer advice; they consider and approve applications for financial help.

Membership of some bodies calls for professional skills; doctors on medical committees, for instance. But I believe every board should also have a mature layman or two sitting-in on the consultations to provide basic common sense input from the community.

Too many advisory groups work in semi-secrecy. They consider, discuss and recommend out of the public eye. Their meetings are usually not only unknown to the public, but closed to the press. Yet they decide such vital issues as health, transport, education, housing, and law and order.

The first the public gets to know about this is when the Government promulgates new regulations or a fresh proposal surfaces in Legco.

The administration then blandly explains the matter has been fully discussed by the appropriate board of advisers.

Basically, it's a sensible, workable system. But it must be made more transparent so people know that government takes notice of the advice which it seems so enthusiastically to seek.

Kevin Sinclair is a Hong Kong-based journalist