Transparency needed over use of consultants

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 April, 2008, 12:00am
 

By any standards, HK$245 million is a big sum to pay to outside consultants. Yet, this is how much taxpayers' money is being spent by 37 government departments on 280 studies in this and the previous financial year.

Outside expert advice is certainly needed, from time to time, to assist bureaus and their policymakers in various areas. But in most instances the public has no way of knowing whether the advice that has been given represents good value for money. Only about a third of the reports are released.

This works in the government's favour but not in the public interest. The whole system is lacking transparency. Departments and bureaus do not need to explain why or how a consultant is chosen. A rigorous, open and objective selection process is needed to make sure only qualified and independent consultants are hired - not just those who are favoured or who will deliver results their government clients want to hear.

Under the current system, some overlapping in the commissioning of studies by different departments appears to exist. This may result from a lack of co-ordination between departments, with each deciding independently which studies it needs to contract out. For example, the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau and the Financial Services and Treasury Bureau separately hired consultants to study the financial arrangements for the Disney theme park. Both the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department and the Food and Health Bureau commissioned consultants to determine how to involve the private sector in building a slaughterhouse.

It may sometimes be necessary to hire consultants to look at different aspects of a complex issue, but people have no way of knowing whether this is the case if the relevant departments do not disclose details. The public may also wonder whether some of these studies might be better conducted in-house.

Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen ran on an electoral platform that promised transparency and accountability. Yet the manner in which these consultancy studies are conducted fails to meet these goals. The studies are important because they deal with issues that can have a direct impact on people's lives.

The failure to make a higher proportion of these reports public is part of a long-established official penchant for secrecy. This makes it difficult for people to access official records - and challenge government policies. Sometimes, records are not kept at all. The mainland enacted an archival law two decades ago, yet Hong Kong remains one of the few developed economies in the world that does not have such laws. They are necessary not only to preserve government documents - part of our city's history - but to aid research and education. Unfortunately, officials have recently admitted such laws are low in their list of priorities. This attitude has no place in an open society.

Steps should be taken to improve transparency where consultancy studies are concerned. This does not mean the government must release every report to the public. There may be instances where, for example, public security or commercial secrets are involved. But there should be clear and transparent rules about what is to be made publicly available and when.

An open society requires informed citizens. A vibrant civil society must be allowed to challenge its civil servants. By restricting access to information, public debate and discourse will suffer.

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