Opportunity for openness must be grasped

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 February, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 February, 2005, 12:00am

The government's recent pledges to conduct its business with greater transparency are more than welcome. One very easy way to boost these efforts would be to tighten the rules under which its advisory bodies operate.

Some improvements have been made, but there is room for a much more thorough and systematic revamp. Appointees to the hundreds of advisory committees are still drawn from too narrow a background; meetings are not open enough. Absenteeism is widespread, perhaps owing to the continued practice of choosing members from the same limited pool.

Agendas and discussions are often closely guarded secrets. Important committees can be left in limbo while the government delays making new appointments. And according to a Legislative Council study, there is no overall code of practice or set of guidelines for the establishment and operation of these bodies.

Clear rules on appointments, disclosure of information and release of documents, and declarations of interest would go a long way towards boosting these bodies' standing and legitimacy. Greater visibility should enhance faith in their operation, while a better-functioning advisory system could be invaluable for understanding community opinion.

Evidence abounds that the current set-up is unsatisfactory. The recent launch of a consultation exercise on the future of the Wan Chai waterfront was accompanied by signs the government was trying to bypass the membership of its own Harbourfront Enhancement Committee. Important cultural bodies such as the Arts Development Council and the Antiquities Advisory Board have in recent months been left in the dark about their membership. Then there are statutory bodies such as the Town Planning Board, which operate without the kind of openness that would be justified by the broad impact of the decisions they make.

Development of the arts, land use and urban planning are just three issues about which the public is currently eager to have more say. A review of the advisory committee system should be comprehensive and cover the spectrum, but the bodies dealing with these areas can provide test cases for the effectiveness of any new policies.

There are plans to post the Town Planning Board's minutes and decisions on the internet, and new proposals from members of the Harbourfront Enhancement Committee regarding independent secretariat support and access to information. These are good ideas, and not only for the groups concerned. The reforms could be extended to open meetings, conflict-of-interest rules and methods for ensuring broader representation.

Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa promised 21/2 years ago to review advisory boards. Now, with the public focusing on arts policy and urban planning - areas where its input is vital - would be a good time to follow through on that pledge.