Critics urge top advisory bodies to open up meetings to the public

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 February, 2007, 12:00am

Critics and academics have called on the government to make the meetings of its major advisory boards more open to the public to enhance their transparency and foster consensus building on major policy issues.

A survey by the South China Morning Post found that some influential advisory bodies - including those involved with public transport and the regulation of power companies - were not wholly transparent.

Currently, only 67 of 400 statutory and advisory bodies have meetings open to the public. Seventy post important documents on the internet.

Calls have been made for increased transparency, coupled with criticism that the advisory bodies have sometimes failed to reflect public opinion.

Some academics say the lack of transparency alienates the public and triggers suspicion, making it difficult for the government to win support for its policies.

Li Pang-kwong, a political scientist at Lingnan University said the purpose of consultation was self-defeating if no one knew what was said.

'The public should be informed about what the government is doing, so officials can learn what the public thinks. This will help win support for the government.'

Dr Li said the importance of advisory bodies was declining compared with political bodies, such as the district council or legislature, and these bodies would gradually become 'the last resort for policy support' from officials.

Betty Ho Siu-fong, chairwoman of the Conservancy Association, said the public would have doubts about the credibility of government advisers unless it could see what the bodies had said and done.

'The public seems to have confidence in the experts of the Antiquities Advisory Board and trusts them to work as the gatekeeper. But in the end, do they do the job well?' she asked, citing the Star Ferry Pier clock tower.

The Antiquities Advisory Board's composition was expanded following the clock tower controversy, but political scientists believe this did little to boost its transparency.

'The members appointed to the boards may not represent all range of opinions and can be biased. Even if the government appoints more new members, it still cannot solve the problem completely,' said Ivan Choy Chi-keung, a political analyst from Chinese University.

Some observers worry, however, that opening meetings would hinder the free flow of opinions and silence minority views.

Wong Yuk-shan, an environmental adviser from the University of Science and Technology, rejected public scrutiny, saying he would not sit on a board if the meetings were made public.

'The existing advisory board structure has been working smoothly and effectively,' he said, adding that he saw no advantage in making the meetings public.

Professor Wong said having closed meetings was not denying the public's rights to information. He said it hurt advisory bodies if they were turned into politicised organisations like the district council and the legislature.