The 'masses' will be watching, Mr Tsang
Suffering from a deficit of legitimacy, the British colonial government gave full play to so-called consultative politics in securing effective governance.
Through a multi-tiered consultative mechanism with the Executive Council and advisory bodies, the colonial administration engaged the social and political elite in its policy-formulating process. The elite and advisory bodies in return helped endorse and defend government policies.
By so doing, they helped cushion the government against criticism it lacked legitimacy, and that policies were dictated from above with no public input.
Dubbed the cream of the civil service, a 600-strong team of administrative officers played a key role in the policy-formulation process. While collating and analysing opinions from government advisers, they formulated policy proposals they deemed as in the best interests of society.
This was despite the fact those proposals might not have been popular.
In view of the complicated and at times conflicting interests of society, our government must strike a fine balance between heeding public opinion and making judgment on the basis of objective and rational analysis.
Simply put, it is not a straightforward case of either a top-down or a bottom-up approach. As the public's civic awareness and desire to shape future developments has increased, a top-down approach is a non-starter. However, a government that administers merely in accordance with opinion polls is equally unviable.
The colonial governance strategy had largely served the pre-1997 government well.
But even before it departed, it began to understand the imperative of a fundamental change of their ruling strategy. With the advent of representative democracy and rising expectations from the people, the government faced a more complex political environment.
Against this backdrop, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen said on Thursday the key words of his governance philosophy were 'go into the masses'.
The previous 'public consultation' mode in policy-making, he said, no longer meets the needs of society. The name of the new game was 'public engagement', said Mr Tsang, explaining that people should be engaged at the very beginning of the policy-formulating process.
Call it consultative politics or engagement politics, the government's record in genuinely heeding public opinion in policy-making is vulnerable to challenge.
Claiming views were divided, the colonial government's decision against the introduction of direct elections to Legco in 1988 is a classic case of manipulation of public opinion for political purposes. The post-colonial Article 23 legislation and West Kowloon Cultural Development project have laid bare the problems of intellectual arrogance among officials, and alienation between government and society.
More recently, the government's handling of the demolition of the Star Ferry clock tower and Queen's Pier have raised questions about whether the so-called public engagement is merely old wine in new bottle.
Mr Tsang's change of rhetoric does say something about his acute sense of awareness of the imperative of change in governance style and mode.
But without an open mind and an appreciation and understanding of people's aspirations, the high-sounding talk about such notions as 'go into the masses' will be just that.
Now that pledges have been made and expectations are higher, there will be a stronger feeling of betrayal if the new team fails to impress the populace with a change of work style and, more importantly, substance in policy-making.
Chris Yeung is the Post's editor-at-large