Engagement a step in clearing the air

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 September, 2007, 12:00am

As he began a media briefing on Thursday, half an hour before Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee declared her candidacy for the Legislative Council by-election, Council for Sustainable Development head Edgar Cheng Wai-kin thanked the journalists who had turned up to hear an update on his initiative for better air quality.

Though her set-piece announcement had been widely expected, there was no denying the launch of the former secretary for security's campaign looked the juicier and more exciting story - and Mrs Ip did not disappoint.

In contrast, the pollution story is one of frustration and helplessness. The media and society at large could be pardoned for feeling bored and fatigued by the issue.

If there is a pollution story to tell, it should be one about action, not more talk. Yet, while people feel there is a need to do something urgently, there is also a deep feeling of futility about the political process required to engineer a change of policy.

Superficially, the so-called public engagement process on better air quality launched by the council in June looks like more talk - an opportunity for vested interests to reaffirm their entrenched positions. Public consultations do little to help forge a consensus on contentious issues or make a case for policy change.

The government's consultation on constitutional development, which is due to end next week, is a glaring example of the limitations of consultation. Nearly three months after its green paper was put out for consultation, there are no signs of a consensus being reached on the major aspects of universal suffrage.

Dr Cheng and his colleagues are adamant that the conventional practice of consultation is no longer adequate to reconcile differences over contentious policies. Chandran Nair, chief executive of the Global Institute For Tomorrow, who convenes the council's support group on better air quality, said: 'You can't consult. You have to engage. In consultation, you attract extreme positions, entrenched views. In engagement, you'll be able to get the views of the silent majority, who would otherwise remain silent.'

Mr Nair was referring to what the council says is a new style of bottom-up consultation. The exercise it launched in June is designed to solicit public responses on a range of ideas for achieving cleaner air. The process includes thematic engagement sessions, roving exhibitions in public places such as shopping arcades, meetings with stakeholders and briefings for students.

An unprecedented 30,000 written responses had been received by Wednesday. Dr Cheng is elated by this enthusiastic response. He says it shows the yearning in society for leadership and action on measures to improve air quality.

Given the deficiencies of our political system and the flowering of civil society, there is no lack of examples of the failings of the present consultation system, starting with its failure to stop demolition of the Star Ferry pier in Central.

Cynics may dismiss public engagement as fancy politics-speak. The simple truth is that getting people involved from day one in formulating policy helps instil a sense of ownership, boosts understanding and minimises distrust. This will be vital for the government. A wider and more solid body of public opinion, gathered through an open, transparent engagement process will enhance its capacity to handle controversial issues.

Still, this is only a first step. Much needs to be done to flesh out details of policies - evidence-based research, studies of their technical feasibility and political viability.

If people are promised a more meaningful say on policymaking, their expectations of prompt changes to policies will grow accordingly. But if the government fails to make substantive policy changes it will, at best, disappoint many and, at worse, deepen public cynicism about the deplorable state of Hong Kong politics.