Clear policy needed on consultations
Donald Tsang Yam-kuen used his first public speech as acting chief executive to identify the essential ingredients of good governance. Few would disagree with his assessment: inclusiveness, responsiveness, communication and openness were all on the list. So was forging a vision for Hong Kong that is shared by the community.
One of the most useful ways of shaping that vision is through public consultation. But if this formal mechanism for listening to the people is to work, then the other qualities highlighted by Mr Tsang must be brought into play.
The nature of the consultation document and, especially, the use the government makes of it are critical to the successful formulation of policies.
It should not be necessary to point out to the government that great care must be taken when analysing the results and presenting them to the public. The ham-fisted, self-serving manner in which responses to the national security law proposals were handled in 2003 is a good example of how not to go about it.
But the government still has some lessons to learn. Take, for example, the pre-budget consultation on whether to change the duty on alcoholic beverages.
The results of the consultation have not been published. Financial Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen said in his budget speech that the responses showed there were 'divergent views' on the subject. This is a meaningless conclusion. People hold 'divergent views' on every issue.
Statistics obtained by this newspaper are more helpful. They show that 63 responses were received - and two-thirds were in favour of reducing the duty.
There is little point in seeking responses from the public if the outcome is going to be a simple assertion that people's views differed and therefore nothing will be done.
Mr Tang was not under any obligation to reduce the duty in accordance with the majority view. Consultations should not be treated like referendums. The responses, after all, tend to come from those who have a particular interest in the topic. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the community as a whole.
But the finance chief should have accurately described the results of the consultation exercise and explained why he was departing from the predominant view. This would be in accordance with the inclusiveness, responsiveness, communication and openness spoken of by Mr Tsang.
This is not the biggest issue facing Hong Kong. But the government's approach to consultation exercises will have a serious impact on its creditability - and the shaping of Hong Kong's future. Policies that have recently been the subject of consultations - or are about to be - include electoral reform, tax reform, the development of prime harbourside sites, health, education and sustainable development.
Some of these have adopted an open-minded approach, inviting the public to shape the policy from the start. Others are limited in their nature and look more like an attempt to secure legitimacy for decisions that have already been taken.
There is a need for the government to develop a clear and transparent policy on the way in which consultations are to be conducted. They are not just opinion polls. Consultations should be used to attract fresh ideas, to educate the public, and to improve proposals for reform. This should be a two-way exercise.
The results must be analysed and presented to the public fairly - even if the government decides not to follow the mainstream view. There will be occasions when very strong opposition requires a policy to be shelved. But these are likely to be rare.
Mr Tsang, in his speech in March, spoke of the need to 'forge consensus and accommodate differing views so that most of our people are happy with what we do'. This will only be possible if the policy on consultations is reviewed - and improved.