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  • Aug 22, 2014
  • Updated: 6:53pm
Monitor
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 December, 2013, 6:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 December, 2013, 6:00am

British model of governance is nothing for Hong Kong to boast about

Costly blunders racked up by Westminster over the decades should put officials on guard over institutional weaknesses inherited from the UK

Once in a while, this column has been known to criticise the Hong Kong government.

Whenever it does, someone always objects. "But Hong Kong's system was put in place by the British," he inevitably complains, as if that somehow renders the city's officials infallible, or at least immune to censure in the media.

Alas, although Hong Kong's machinery of government is indeed largely inherited from the British, that is hardly much of a recommendation.

As anyone familiar with the track record of recent British administrations should know, far from being a model of competent governance, Westminster has in fact been responsible for a long and inglorious string of official scandals, foul-ups, and fiascos.

If you doubt that, simply pick up a copy of a recently published book The blunders of our governments, by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe, two eminent academics and long-time observers of British political life.

In it, the authors detail a toe-curling succession of wholly avoidable domestic policy disasters perpetrated by British governments over the three decades from 1979 to 2010.

Some of them are likely to be familiar, including the catastrophic, and ultimately aborted, attempt by Margaret Thatcher's government to replace unpopular local property taxes with a flat per capita poll tax.

There's also the pound's 1990 entry into the European exchange rate mechanism, forerunner to the euro; a debacle so ill-advised and ill-managed that Britain was forced ignominiously to exit the system just over two years later, deeply devaluing the pound.

However, many of the episodes described are less well known. For example, there was the initiative launched by Tony Blair's government to recover ill-gotten gains from convicted criminals. It may have sounded like a good idea, but by the time the Assets Recovery Agency was wound up four years later, it had spent £65 million of public cash to recover just £23 million.

Even worse was the government's long-running attempt to force absent fathers to pay for the support of their children. Eventually abandoned, the policy cost some £137 million a year to administer, while raising just £15 million a year in new child maintenance payments.

But even these disasters pale into insignificance compared with the British government's enthusiasm for commissioning huge, complex and enormously costly computer systems which then completely fail to work.

There was the purchase of a new system to keep track of citizenship applications, abandoned at a cost of £77 million. Then there was the attempt to develop a unified system to manage calls to the emergency services, budgeted at £120 million, and eventually scrapped after the government had spent £469 million.

Finally, there was the grand-daddy of them all, the giant £2 billion project, backed by Tony Blair, to create a single computer system to manage patient records for the National Health Service. Quite how much this folly actually cost by the time the project was cancelled almost 10 years later no one seems to know, but a figure of £20 billion is often cited.

Altogether, King and Crewe calculate that in little more than 20 years the amount of public money wasted on failed information technology projects "cannot have amounted to less than £50 billion and was probably a great deal more".

As long as you are not a British taxpayer, this is all fine, entertaining stuff. But it is when the authors begin to analyse the causes of Westminster's repeated policy failures that the alarm bells should start to ring. Many of the systemic and institutional weaknesses that allowed Britain to screw up on such a colossal scale also affect Hong Kong's government.

For example, officials here are just as susceptible as their opposite numbers in Britain to "cultural disconnect", where well-educated politicians and civil servants from prosperous middle class backgrounds have little or no understanding of the lives of ordinary people for whom they are drafting and implementing new policies.

Similarly, they are just as prone to "group-think", circling their intellectual wagons, to suppress internal doubts and reject external criticism.

Like their British counterparts, Hong Kong officials can also fall victim to "fragmented departmentalism" and are at risk from "operational disconnect", in which the political appointees who originally devise the policies may not carry the can for their implementation.

And of course, they are equally influenced by their own prejudices, and are just as swayed by media hysteria.

Happily, Hong Kong's list of fiascos since the 1997 handover is not as long and as shameful as Westminster's.

Even so, considering how much the city's machinery of governance owes to Britain, King's and Crewe's assertion that "the British system of government itself is blunder-prone" leaves Hong Kong no room for complacence.

tom.holland@scmp.com

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This article is now closed to comments

eddie_spaghetti
Every political system has its faults, and given that they're effected over an entire nation, any mistakes are likely to be costly. The difference between a British system and say, that of an opaque oligarchical system, is that the people who vote for the British government are firstly able to freely see the information they need to know about the **** ups, and then get to vote out the incompetents who made the mistakes, as happened with Blair/Brown (NHS IT systems), and Major (ERM) etc. Compare and contrast with a system in which untold billions are embezzled on an daily basis by unaccountable 'servants of the people' on such grand schemes as ghost cities and high speed railway systems, for the benefit of no-one except themselves and their cronies.
Sugelanren
No system is perfect and Hong Kong has had 15 years to change it, and yet.........So it must be the people and not the system
kbryce
The model of governance provided by Britain to Hong Kong bares very little resemblance to the system in the United Kingdom. Its strengths are precisely because it was very different from that employed in Westminster, after all, Hong Kong is unique, and it was governed very effectively by the Colonial apparatus. Attacking the UK is pointless and hardly revelatory; we all know London is far more disfunctional than Hong Kong, ask any HK student paying their dues in the UK.
req
India inherited the 'best legal system' in the world from UK. Amazing country with amazing sanitation facilities and free from corruption!
Sugelanren
Exactly.......its the people that run it.........not the system
singleline
A speaker in a recent Hong Kong radio talk show claimed that Britain has still got the best management system in the world.
It can be argued that, if the Japanese were as smart as their British counterparts, Asia would already have become 'Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere' in the first half of the twentieth century.
jonlimcff
Why blame UK for what happened to Hong Kong. ? Hong Kong is now governed by different kind of people compare to the people who managed it while Hong Kong is still under UK. Hong Kong at least inherited the best legal system in the world from UK. Try the Chinese legal system !! It'd chaotic and a complete mess with corruption added !!!!
johnyuan
To jon....
.
Until CY Leung takes the lead which he has in many occasions since he took office, Hong Kong remains a British colony as far for those tycoons who rightly demand so under even the one country, two systems. With no change for 50 years, the tycoons emerge in essence to the front in politics in desperation -- this we can’t blame the Brits except for the spoiled brads it has regrettably bred. Same much can be said of the unintended result of an unchanged 50 years promise that can’t even face up less than one third of years into the promise.
.
The newly formed think tank in Beijing on Hong Kong affairs by academics is a constructive step forward. I have confidence that Hong Kong will have better days to come.
pslhk
“Hong Kong's list of fiascos since the 1997 handover
is not as long and as shameful as Westminster's”
because the slow learner couldn’t keep up
and mother China helped cover up
consequences of bad practices
it acquired from Britain
caractacus
Your comparison is fatuous and misleading.
Surely the answer is: Chief Executive and Exco / Legco, you are in charge of governing now, so step up to the plate, do it properly and honestly and don't use a former sovereign power as the excuse for any mess you make.

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