Open to change

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 July, 2007, 12:00am

The World Bank's governance indicators over the past decade have consistently rated Hong Kong higher than the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's average in political stability, government effectiveness, regulatory quality, rule of law and control of corruption.

However, the city did poorly in 'voice and accountability', though its score jumped significantly from 52.2 (out of 100), in 2005, to 64.9 last year.

This shortfall is probably due to the slow progress in democratisation and the perceived gap between the government and the people, as old-style consultative politics outlives its usefulness.

Hong Kong has inherited an extensive system of advisory committees and public consultation from the former British administration. District councils serve as community-level sounding boards. Legislative Council panels are active in probing the government on policy details and demanding accountability.

Outside official channels, the public can resort to the mass media, NGO activities, protests and campaigns to voice their demands. As the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome saga revealed, the impact of the media, especially radio phone-ins, is significant in spurring the government into action and responding to grievances.

Governance reform goes beyond elections and participatory hardware. It ultimately hinges on changing attitudes and values. This is not easy, judging from experience.

The review of advisory and statutory bodies a few years ago failed to prod wider discussion on public participation in policy-making. District councils have long been seen as assemblies with limited impact on community administration and planning.

But there is no shortage of ideas for improvement based on local and international good practice. The five-stage engagement process adopted for the first sustainable development strategy in 2004, for example, involved various stakeholders and the community at the outset of the policy-making process, when ideas were solicited before the launch of an invitation and response document.

This, in turn, formed the basis of further community involvement before an engagement process report was produced, followed by a government report specifying policy considerations and recommendations.

The 2005 report of the independent inquiry into the Equal Opportunities Commission recommended adopting the core values embodied in the Paris Principles for public bodies; these include independence, pluralism, openness, transparency and communication, and accountability.

In its 2005 governance review, SynergyNet called on the government to issue a code on public consultation. Last week, a Bauhinia Foundation Research Centre report urged the government to develop a framework for civil engagement - including a civic engagement code and a compulsory civic engagement assessment for all policy proposals.

Public engagement is costly and demands much time, attention, resources and institutional energy. If the government and social stakeholders are not prepared to devote their patience and commitment, well-designed engagement mechanisms can easily degenerate into nominal exercises and a platform for rhetoric.

Also, public engagement should not seek to replace the function of representative institutions.

In the past, bureaucrats tended to treat civil society organisations as pressure groups trying to challenge the government's authority and were too defensive when handling diverse views. As Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen recalls, officials formalised decisions behind closed doors and told the public: 'We have made the best choice for you.' Such suspicion and arrogance have to go.

On their part, social activists have been too distrustful of government. Policy debates have often been long on adversarial moves and short on collaborative deliberations. It takes two to tango. Both sides have to learn to trust and keep an open mind towards each other, in order to harbour less conspiracy-theory and zero-sum presumptions.

Engagement demands mutual trust and respect for different views.

It is not supposed to dampen debates; and debates are not about winning an argument, but finding solutions to problems.

In a nutshell, it is about managing conflict in a more pluralist society.

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