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

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 December, 2013, 6:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 December, 2013, 6:00am

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.