Study urges rules for public input on policy

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 July, 2007, 12:00am

Consult more, government told

The government has been urged to engage society in policymaking by developing a code of practice on consultation. If implemented, it would mark a fundamental shift in the way policies are developed in Hong Kong.

A study commissioned by the Bauhinia Foundation Research Centre - a think-tank close to Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen - suggests that every proposal put to the Executive Council should contain an assessment of the civic engagement process and its result.

It says the present consultation system no longer properly gauges the public's views. That conclusion is supported by the 500,000-strong march on July 1, 2003 and the public outcry against the demolition of the Star Ferry pier, says the report on the study, conducted for the foundation by the University of Hong Kong's Centre for Civil Society and Governance.

A civic engagement code should be drawn up, containing performance guidelines and standard operating procedures for the engagement process, to guide all policymaking bodies, it says.

It recommends that a government report on civic engagement be submitted annually to the chief executive, the Executive Council and Legislative Council. Further, a secretariat should be established in the office of the chief executive or chief secretary to co-ordinate and oversee the proposals' implementation. The report also recommends training for civil servants in civic engagement, including job exchanges with civic groups.

Lam Woon-kwong, convenor of the Bauhinia Foundation's civic engagement study group, pointed to a lack of mutual trust between the government and society. 'The government needs to be open-minded and to reach out to the public to gauge their views, not give the impression it already has a predetermined stance on policy issues,' he said.

While welcoming the general direction of the report and most of its recommendations, he advocated a step-by-step approach to implementing the proposals.

A code of practice should be established and implemented before any consideration is given to another recommendation in the report - that a regulatory framework be established for non-profit and charity groups, covering areas like registration, fund-raising and accountability.

He acknowledged the importance of civic groups' views, but said the general public's opinions should also be considered. To change some groups' impression that their views are ignored, he suggested the government consider making it compulsory to respond in writing to civic groups' submissions.

The report examined five case studies to explore the effectiveness of the existing engagement mechanisms in the areas of arts and culture, the environment, planning and social welfare, and drew on overseas experience. It gave a thumbs-down to the Commission on Poverty's performance, by describing it as having a 'low level of success' that stemmed from the 'fundamental ideological disagreements on matters relating to the seriousness of the problem of poverty' among the commission members.

Mr Lam said the foundation disagreed with this view.

'We don't think the commission is ineffective ... yet we think in the future, it could consider dividing the different policy areas as it encompasses various areas,' he said.

He also praised the success of the Council for Sustainable Development in engaging civil society in the policymaking process.

The report was submitted to the government yesterday.

Think-tank's key recommendations:

Policy proposals put to the Executive Council should contain assessments of civic engagement

A civic engagement code should be formulated for policymaking bodies

An annual government report on civic engagement should be sent to the chief executive, exco and the Legislative Council

A secretariat in the office of the chief executive or chief secretary should be established to oversee how well the measures on civic engagement are implemented

Civil servants and administrative officers should work for civil society groups to gain experience at the local level

Civil service training in civic engagement should be established

The regulatory framework should be improved with new laws on non-profit and charity groups

Community foundations should be created to sponsor works that strengthen civil society

An agreement between the government and civil society should be negotiated to build an effective relationship similar to those in Britain and Canada