A new voice for society
The government is going to consult the public soon on the reform of district councils, as promised in October's policy address. No doubt there will be heated debates about the role and powers of the public bodies, how well district councillors should be paid to attract and groom political talent, and whether appointed seats should be abolished.
District councils were first set up in the early 1980s, to provide an arena for local participation in district administration. Over the years, as the Legislative Council opened to elections, the councils gradually became a fixture in the political system. Some district councillors acted as organisers of kaifong, or neighbourhood, services, and became the pillars of support for legislators and parties at the local level.
Some of them grumble about missing out on a political career, which to them means legislative office. However, no matter how the legislature is to be expanded, there will not be enough room to accommodate all district councillors aspiring to be lawmakers. Their job dissatisfaction has to be addressed by revamping district council work: otherwise, it will be impossible to attract people of high calibre and commitment into their ranks.
Hence, district council reform is not just about the transfer of management responsibilities over certain district facilities or services to these elected bodies. It should be about reinventing them to become a real focal point of district governance. This calls for a new brand of councillor, one who is firmly dedicated to engaging the community in governance from the bottom up.
The Basic Law does not provide for the establishment of local government in Hong Kong. However, there is still room to get district councils better involved in the policy-making process. In this respect, numbers matter. If the present 18 district councils can be reorganised into, say, six larger councils, it should be practical to include one district council representative on every major statutory and policy advisory body. The linkage would become organic.
Even if the total number of 400 elected councillors is not reduced, the cost savings from such a reorganisation - and from the abolition of any appointed seats - could help generate additional resources to support the new-style councils and councillors. Better-staffed secretariats and research arms could then be provided.
The reinvention of district governance must involve a corresponding reform of the administrative machinery. All major government departments significantly involved in providing services at the local level should be decentralised. Their officers could then respond more quickly and flexibly to local demands, less constrained by rigid policies from headquarters.
Stronger partnerships should be forged between officials and elected councillors. This can be done by reinventing the present District Management Committee, making it a tripartite board that comprises local officials, elected representatives of district councils and a few appointed experts from the professions and non-governmental organisations.
The committee is chaired by the district officer, a career administrative officer from the Home Affairs Department. There would be merit in making the district officer a political appointment. Candidates could be former district or municipal councillors, legislators, or public-sector executives.
An appointed district commissioner serving an enlarged district - with greater authority and reporting directly to the chief executive - may well possess a stronger capacity to co-ordinate district services and planning, and to promote a greater sense of local identity, than a 'faceless' civil servant.
Anthony Cheung Bing-leung is a professor of public administration at City University of Hong Kong, an executive councillor and founder of SynergyNet, a policy think-tank