When distrust dulls the shine of policy innovation

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 January, 2007, 12:00am

Democratic governance is generally regarded as conducive to building political trust, giving government the legitimacy to rule. But it is, at the same time, a positive institutionalisation of distrust.

Just look at the separation of powers and institutions of accountability, audit and scrutiny. If the people are overconfident in their rulers, it may lead to arrogance or even authoritarianism. Hence democracy requires a balance between trust and distrust to work. In Hong Kong, constitutional flaws have left the government with a deficit of legitimacy and uncertainty.

As the political quagmire resulting from the unresolved constitutional debate drags on, the lack of trust persists in a government that the people have no part in electing. The social capital so necessary to embark on policy-making will be hard to come by. This makes it crucial for the chief executive election candidates to face the community, not just the 800-member Election Committee.

It is still possible to recall the days in the 1970s when reformist colonial governor Murray MacLehose bulldozed through major institutional reforms - such as the setting up of the Independent Commission Against Corruption, and the launch of ambitious public housing, education and medical care plans - in order to achieve some form of government legitimacy.

He had almost autocratic powers to make policy and did not face an institutionalised opposition or a vibrant civil society. He needed only to overcome bureaucratic conservatism.

Nowadays, partial democracy has created a vocal legislature, yet the lack of full democracy has not given the government a clear mandate on policy. It has to work even harder to achieve a social consensus and political support. The government simply cannot dictate to society, unlike a colonial reformist administration.

If parties and legislators join hands to oppose government proposals, and there is no clear community support, the administration has no alternative but to back down. The decision to look again at the West Kowloon Cultural District plan and the shelving of the goods and services tax proposal are cases in point.

Strong governance is difficult in an environment of distrust. Policy problems and solutions need to be dealt with in a rational and evidence-based manner. But political reductionism can easily simplify policy debates into an original sin about the lack of democracy and people power - a tempting theme to keep harping on. Institutional reforms and policy changes are easily challenged because the government lacks legitimacy. Any changes short of universal suffrage may be discarded as mere cosmetic or political spin.

Distrust - whether from legislators or ordinary citizens - breeds the need for greater pressure on accountability, on a day-to-day basis. But distrust can be mutual, too: the government may become sceptical of critics and dissenting voices.

Ministers feel inhibited when considering policy because the political risk seems high. Civil servants become uptight about the application of policies and in the exercise of discretionary power when they suspect that the public and legislative reaction is unlikely to be sympathetic. In the end, the capacity to bite the bullet and make hard policy choices is minimised.

Distrust also breeds a blame game between the government and political parties or legislators, as well as between officials and civic groups.

Distrust is a great weapon to derail unpopular policies and measures, but policy innovation - particularly where short-term pain is involved - can be facilitated only if there is an adequate level of trust in government. Otherwise, scepticism prevails and public policy is always at a standstill.

How to rebuild trust in the current political quagmire, to link up the political and policy worlds, is a major question to be answered by the contestants of the chief executive election.

Anthony Cheung Bing-leung is an executive councillor and founder of SynergyNet, a policy think-tank