Public consultation needs to enter the 21st century
The rows over the demolition of the old Star Ferry pier late last year and the fate of the Queen's Pier marked a watershed in public consultation, a key element of this city's executive-led governance. The government, caught unawares by the depth of public sentiment, looked out of touch. This was not because it had failed to consult, but because the traditional consultation process no longer meets public expectations. This prompted the government to concede there were flaws and to promise a rethink.
A study commissioned by the Bauhinia Foundation Research Centre - a think-tank close to Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen - is a timely contribution. It shows how the conventional mode of consultation has failed to keep up with political and social changes since the handover 10 years ago and rightly calls for an overhaul.
In the case of the Star Ferry and Queen's piers, the groups consulted - recognised non-government organisations - by and large endorsed the administration's demolition proposals as part of the Central-Wan Chai reclamation project. But as demolition began, people strongly opposed to it appeared on the site and tried to stop it. These were not people represented by traditional NGOs, nor well known. They were a loose, amorphous coalition of younger people, capable of rapid consensus and action through the internet.
Their voice was not heard by a consultation mechanism that dates to colonial times. The administration set up advisory committees and chose the members. Their role, however, usually amounted to no more than a window-dressing exercise, structured so that the government could be assured of the result it wanted.
Public consultations nowadays at least embrace people with different views, but they are generally groups prepared to reconcile and work within established guidelines. As a result, in time, they can be seen as part of the establishment.
Clearly a new system of consultation is needed. The think-tank observes that the chief executive has a weak power base from which to exercise his strong constitutional powers and he faces forces beyond his control, such as elected legislators and political parties who resist a top-down approach to policymaking. In addition the media and civil society have actively exposed government failures and demanded more accountability and transparency.
The think-tank has put forward several worthwhile reforms to engage the community more meaningfully in policy formulation, among them a civic engagement code to be followed by policy-making bodies, assessments of the consultation process to be included in policy proposals put to the Executive Council and the temporary transfer of civil servants and administrative officers to civil society groups to gain experience at the local level.
Its suggestion that more resources be given to NGOs so that they can research issues more thoroughly is to be commended, though this raises concerns that financial support could be seen as compromising their independence and undermines more representative consultation. Generally its ideas would lead to better communication with established NGOs, but they need to be developed to address the emergence of discrete civil action groups, issue-driven and amorphous.
Public consultation is instrumental in securing good governance by Hong Kong's executive-led system. We should not have to wait too long for the government's response.