It's broke, so fix it

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 August, 2005, 12:00am

From graft-fighting and privacy protection to rail services and examinations, more than 60 bodies under the 'small-government' principle in Hong Kong have been given statutory powers to function independently and effectively.

They have played no small part in shoring up public confidence and satisfaction in an efficient, effective and credible administration. It is disheartening, therefore, that one after another, independent statutory bodies have become mired in blunders and scandals.

On Monday, the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority took measures to salvage its credibility after a grading bungle saw 670 exam papers marked down.

Last week, the Privacy Commission suspended deputy commissioner Tony Lam Wing-hong, who faced an investigation over the alleged misuse of public funds.

And earlier this month, Equal Opportunities Commission chairman Raymond Tang Yee-bong had to convene a special board meeting to refute media allegations that he had had too many overseas trips and lunch meetings with members.

Mr Tang succeeded Anna Wu Hung-yuk earlier this year as part of an overhaul of the statutory body, following a string of scandals surrounding the dismissal of a veteran human rights activist.

The litany of indignities and blunders, together with the blitz of negative publicity in recent months of other statutory bodies such as the Tourism Board and the Arts Development Council, has dealt a blow to their image and work.

More importantly, it raises concerns about their function and supervision. Amid rising public expectations for accountability and transparency - and more scrutiny by a media more and more capable of drawing attention to and galvanising sentiment against independent bodies - they can no longer operate behind the shield of independence from the bureaucracy.

And as the controversies over the privacy and examination bodies have shown, the relevant policy bureaus cannot escape a share of the blame when misdeeds by agencies and commissions are uncovered.

To the relevant policy bureaus, this poses a dilemma: if officials tread too heavily on the operation of independent bodies, they could spoil the beauty of the original system - but they also cannot give them a free hand to operate on public funds without adequate checks.

There are good reasons to let statutory bodies handle certain tasks, ranging from public services to the promotion of societal values. From a management standpoint, independence of operation allows them the flexibility to carry out their work in a more effective (and cost-effective) way. But some fear they are becoming 'independent kingdoms', beyond the watchful eyes of officials and the public.

Superficially, the most immediate measure officials can take to keep statutory bodies in order is to reshuffle their leadership and boards.

In the long run, corporate governance of statutory bodies must be enhanced through structural and management reforms, to promote a culture and system of accountability, greater transparency of operation, and better service to the public.

It is clear that there has long existed a degree of official ignorance of the long-standing, deep-seated management and operational problems of independent bodies.

Consumed by an 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' attitude, ministers and bureaucrats have been happy to leave them alone up to now.

But as scandals unfold one after another, the price to pay for inertia and short-sightedness will prove costly for the government, for the statutory bodies and for society at large.

Chris Yeung is the Post's editor-at-large