Make public opinion count
Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen may not deliver much in his forthcoming constitutional reform package. But while democratic governance could be a distant goal, Mr Tsang might at least deliver a major revamping of the consultation system.
When his predecessor, Tung Chee-hwa, began his second term in mid-2002, he promised to review and reform the advisory committee system. A review was undertaken by the Home Affairs Bureau. Three years later, little has come of it except the launch of the new online Public Affairs Forum in March, comprising 524 appointed, middle-class members.
The effect of the new e-consultation channel is so far unclear. The number of views posted by forum members has fluctuated - from an early peak of some 170 to only 28 in the recent consultation on the future development of the electricity market.
Even the issue of social security allowance for single parents only attracted 86 responses.
The response rates for online polls were also low, with an average of fewer than 80 votes from the more than 500 members. It is not clear how the forum's views have influenced policy decisions. Some critics say the middle-class, conservative background of many members means they will only confirm established policy.
A proper review of the consultation system should seek to correct the structural bias of many advisory committees in favour of the business and professional sectors, and to improve their transparency, accountability and effectiveness in government policy-making. A code of practice should be drawn up to govern the procedures and operations of advisory and statutory bodies. Either a special commissioner for public appointments or the existing Public Service Commission should be assigned to monitor such public appointments and ensure that they are made on the principles of merit and social inclusion. Public consultations should be held at the formative stage of policy-making, to avoid rendering the consultation just an exercise of endorsing plans.
The recent five-stage stakeholder engagement process adopted for formulating the First Sustainable Development Strategy is commendable in this regard. Various stakeholders and the community were involved at the outset, when ideas were solicited before the launch of an 'invitation and response' document. That, in turn, formed the basis of further community involvement, before an engagement process report was produced, followed by a government report containing policy considerations and recommendations. Such a process may be lengthy, but its outcome is better assured of having wide public backing.
Public participation and consultation is not just about the availability of channels and the willingness to conduct public opinion exercises. The treatment given to the opinions obtained, and whether public opinions count in making final decisions, is more crucial. Government should adopt a uniform set of procedures for public consultations and participation for all bureaus and departments, requiring them to conduct consultations and surveys on policy proposals, and to publish the results. The Tsang administration must clarify its policy objectives in public participation and consultation within the context of people-based governance. A green paper should be published to consult the community about the way forward - including appointments to advisory and statutory bodies - and the final policy on consultation should be consolidated in a white paper.
Anthony Cheung Bing-leung is a professor of public administration at City University of Hong Kong and chairman of SynergyNet, a policy think-tank