Poor gauge of public mood to blame for national education retreat

Mike Rowse pins down the lesson to learn in national education debacle

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 June, 2013, 11:50am

On October 19, 1812, the French army under Napoleon began its momentous retreat from Moscow, which was to spawn the famous orchestral work by Tchaikovsky. Some 200 years later, almost to the day, our government has been forced to undertake a similarly humiliating retreat, on the vexed subject of national education, though it seems unlikely anyone is going to memorialise the event with an overture.

But when we have all finished enjoying the discomfort of our senior officials, we need to examine a serious matter that the episode has exposed. "We" in this context includes the whole community, but in particular the chief executive and his team of advisers on the Executive Council.

Every policy paper that goes to Exco has a section that tries to forecast likely public reaction to the proposal being recommended, followed by a paragraph outlining how the administration intends to "sell" the new plan to the community, if it is endorsed.

In my time in the government, I saw hundreds of public reaction paragraphs. Indeed, for a long time, it was part of my job to vet that part of all papers before they were put to the council.

Almost invariably, the first draft, which came from the policy bureau responsible for the subject, would predict an enthusiastic public response for even the most humdrum item. But that draft would then be subjected to close scrutiny by three other parties within the administration to ensure the final assessment was accurate.

First, the Information Services Department would dig out past media coverage of the topic and attempt to forecast how the press would react. Second, the Home Affairs Bureau would draw on feedback from the district council network to assess the likely reaction from the community. Finally, the information co-ordinator would give his advice on how the subject was likely to play out, and suggest the best public relations plan.

What is so troubling about the national education saga is that the administration seems to have been totally blindsided by the scale and vehemence of the opposition. Somehow, somewhere, the system broke down.

Was it during the consultation phase? Even before the Exco paper is drafted, normal practice would be to consult widely with all affected parties to test the water. Undoubtedly, there was a broad consultation exercise on national education, but how genuine was it, and how scrupulously were the results tabulated? From what has been made public so far, there are disturbing indications that some negative reactions may have been downplayed.

Knowing President Hu Jintao was thought to be keen on the subject, did the Education Bureau allow itself to be over-optimistic? Did our information services and home affairs officials simply misread the media and public mood, or were they, too, influenced by the proposal's friends in high places? Was the information co-ordinator distracted so that he took his eye off the ball?

No administration should slavishly follow what it perceives public opinion to be. The chief executive, on the advice of Exco, is perfectly entitled to bring forward proposals he knows will be unpopular if he believes they are in the city's best long-term interests. But in reaching a decision, members are entitled to have the benefit of the best possible - the most objective - assessment of public reaction, not some toned-down version served up in a bid not to offend.

Unless our chief executive finds out what went wrong this time, he runs the risk of repeated knock-backs.

How different the outcome might have been if just one marshal had said to Napoleon: "Hey boss, I'm not sure it's a good idea to attack Russia in winter. It gets pretty cold." How different would events here have been, two centuries later, if just one senior official had said: "Hey boss, this national education stuff is going to stir up a hornets' nest. A lot of ordinary people will view it as no more than crude communist propaganda."

In both cases, there is just a lingering suspicion that all concerned were too afraid to speak truth to power.

Mike Rowse is the search director of Stanton Chase International and an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. mike@rowse.com.hk