• Mon
  • Dec 22, 2014
  • Updated: 11:15pm
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.



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This article is now closed to comments

"Happily, Hong Kong's list of fiascos since the 1997 handover is not as long and as shameful as Westminster's."
Give them a few more years...the bridge to nowhere, the high speed rail to nowhere, the harbour reclamation, letting Kai Tak sit fallow for 15 years, west Kowloon park/arts district/luxury housing project (who knows what it will become?), MPF that benefits banks and fund managers, destroying HK's street life thru an obsession with tourism, the various govt entities that do nothing (Privacy Commission, EOC, TDC, inVest HK ...too many to list here within the 1500 word limit. I think HK can give Britain a run for their money if you will excuse the pun.
There are two types of people who comment on the British legacy in Hong Kong and then there is the SCMP. One type of person seeks to avoid responsibility by saying, "but this was a system inherited from the British", and the other type of person seeks to stop change by saying, "but this was a system inherited from the British". And then there is the SCMP - the kings of the Cheap Shot.
Whilst it is not on the whole the British who are lauding their past record in Hong Kong, the SCMP loves nothing more than rabble rousing against a (what is now) foreign nation - a strategy that may increase its readership but somewhat similar with the tactics used by a party on the mainland to score political points.
Can we all have a break from the SCMPs constant attack on some foreign government or other - in recent months its been the Philippines, the US, the UK, Japan, etc, etc. Reporting is one thing, but actively creating the controversy is something altogether different.
I would only add that the obsession with tourism should be an "obsession with mainland tourism." Most tourists come to see the "real and historic Hong Kong." Mainland tourist come to Hong ing to buy luxury goods, electronics and unattained food, all at lower prices that the Mainland. Thus mass retail takes precedence over everything else and the Hong Kong most tourists would want to experience is destroyed in favor of cross border shoppers. Unfortunately, the destruction is irreversible.
Don't forget HK is just a city and for a city it has more than its share of **** ups.
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 !!!!
Dear TH,
Me thinks you are confusing 'British democracy', as practiced in the UK' with all its inherent faults, with 'British Benign Dictatorship' as practiced in the British Colonies, again with all its inherent faults. They were very different and I would suggest the latter had a lot going for it. Once a course had been decided it was inevitably followed, irrespective of public opinion.
However when the colonial mantle was removed there was no telling in which direction the former colony would head, nor how good its governance would be. HK is showing itself to be no different to any other former colony/territory as it tries to please both its populace and endear itself to its new Master.
John Adams
I agree with you Sir.
I could add dozens more glaring examples before I exceed my own 1,500 word limit.
“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
Mmm, yes, but quite a lot of things HAVE worked too. How about a bit of balance? And at least the UK government shows a bit of imagination and public-mindedness. Compare to the HK administration's shameful list of endeavours in rpasea's list below.
One of my friends once told me the following. What’s special about the British people is that ‘you still have to thank them after they have killed you.’
Now I am still wondering whether my friend is right or wrong. But we had better beware.
According to Joe Zhang, ‘(c)hecks and balances sound grand, but that sort of ideal evenhandedness is precisely why the United Nations is such a waste of time, no matter what the goals of the organization itself.’
In Hong Kong, well, I don’t want to repeat, just replace United Nations by Legislative Council.
Every person there tries hard to persuade every other person who simply doesn’t want to be persuaded. While watching, the British must be laughing surreptitiously. Sometimes the Council only makes good news, nothing else.
Please allow me to occupy your comment corner to say something about the RICS in Hong Kong of its public call directed towards CY Leung’s next speech.
To the RICS - The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors:
Allow me to speak up honestly about your proposal. Your organization is urging government to lower land cost in NT for building housing for the elderly. RICS is counting beans in solving a housing problem that entails more just beans. First, are you expecting elderly who needs housing has spare money to buy flats for their retirement? Secondly, do you think it is humane to ban the elderlies to remote part of Hong Kong as for them to live earlier and dead sooner to be nearer to the graveyard? As a profession, albeit a surveyor of mostly accounting in land and property, its social concern for the elderly for me is a great suspect.
I will be quite frank. The proposal is a front for the vested interest of property developers who have land in the NT. A few elderly housings may get the government to spend on upgrading and building a infrastructure system. The developers are just waiting. What deals they have made with the villagers are still as dead as still water without proper infrastructure.
If the surveyors are honest and make a point about it, I will respect them as professional who are otherwise mere bean counters and who are looking for their next income in the property downturn. Who are you royal to?




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