Accountability needed without interference
Independent statutory bodies are agents of 'small' government, set up to carry out functions previously performed by a department or new roles, such as in the areas of privacy or equal opportunities. They share responsibility in maintaining trust in the rules and conventions of a fair and open society.
Funded by the taxpayer, they are rightly expected to observe rigorous standards of accountability and transparency. When they are shown to have fallen short of these standards they risk compromising the independence that goes to the heart of public confidence in them.
The news that privacy commissioner Roderick Woo Bun has declined to renew his deputy Tony Lam Wing-hong's contract to safeguard the 'best interests of the commission' adds to growing concern over recent blunders and scandals involving these independent bodies.
Mr Lam is being investigated by the Independent Commission Against Corruption over allegations he abused his position when acting commissioner by organising eight business trips, some of which allowed him to visit his family in Australia.
Last month, Equal Opportunities Commission chairman Raymond Tang Yee-bong convened a board meeting to rebut media allegations that he had had too many overseas trips and lunch meetings with members. Mr Tang succeeded Michael Wong Kin-chow earlier this year as part of an overhaul of the EOC, following scandals surrounding the dismissal of a veteran human-rights activist.
There have also been allegations that the Tourism Board has been guilty of nepotism when hiring senior staff.
Statutory bodies are subject only to arm's-length supervision by the government. This means they do not face ministerial intervention on a day-to-day basis. Critics say that behind this shield of independence, they have become 'kingdoms' in which accountability and transparency are sometimes overlooked.
The government has been under pressure to do something about it. As a result, the Home Affairs Bureau has issued a draft memo to the EOC and Office of the Privacy Commissioner seeking to exercise more control over their spending and make them more accountable. For example, overseas trips would need approval from the secretary for home affairs, and the government would take more control of the bodies' purse strings.
Regrettably, the measures target two bodies that protect the rights and liberties of the individual and act as a watchdog on abuse of power by the government. The human-rights community is already upset by what it sees as the government's undermining of the EOC - by not reappointing chairwoman Anna Wu Hung-yuk after she successfully took the government to court over the Secondary School Places Allocation System and appointing conservative members to the board.
The government's action is understandable in the face of a corruption inquiry and mounting public criticism. But it would be sensible to be wary of the fine line between accountability and interference. There is no question that both bodies need to be seen to be more accountable. But a careful balance must still be struck with the imperative of freedom from undue government interference.
Questions remain as to whether statutory bodies - there are more than 60 of them - generally meet expectations of openness, representativeness, transparency and accountability. Little is known, for example, about the interface between them and the relevant policy bureaus. The controversy involving the EOC has raised fears about ministerial interference. Other cases may indicate that ministers failed to keep an effective watch over bodies in their policy areas.
It may be time for a comprehensive review of the relationship between policy bureaus and departments on the one hand and statutory bodies. The latter remain important institutions. Public confidence in their independence is essential to 'small' government that does not interfere unduly in people's lives.