Policy unit needs to do more with less
There appears to be nothing wrong with a government trying to improve the way it sells its policies to its citizens. But recent steps taken by Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's team have raised many eyebrows. In a departure from tradition, his government has resorted to television commercials and newspaper advertisements to ease opposition against the special old age allowance and other proposals currently before Legco. Separately, the Central Policy Unit is seeking to expand beyond its role as a policy think tank by trying to influence public opinion in favour of the government. One of its members has even been given a specific role to co-ordinate appointments to the hundreds of advisory panels. Such changes have inevitably aroused concern and suspicion.
The new directions are remarkably different from those before the 1997 handover. Under colonial rule, the unit served mainly as a behind-the-scenes strategist on long-term challenges. Over the years, its scope has expanded to include public-opinion surveys, although what topics are covered and how the findings are used remain unclear. Earlier, unit chief Shiu Sin-por stressed the need to engage in public relations battles. The government, he said, could not afford to stand still and risk getting hit. Apart from conducting surveys and monitoring views on the internet, the government will also take steps to drum up public support for its policies.
Arguably, the government is entitled to lobby for public support, just like any other interest groups. Various departments may also take on new roles, as appropriate. The key is to address what people are concerned about and win their support. However, the merits of buying air time to sell controversial proposals is debatable. Unlike TV commercials aimed at informing and educating people, the government's recent ones serve to influence. This blurs the line between gauging and shaping opinion. It also raises questions on whether public funds should be used to promote policies that have yet to be finalised.
There is more to governance than just winning over public opinion. Ultimately, it is policy that matters. Manipulating views will not help if decisions and policies are flawed. The unit employs 17 full-time staff and 40 or so part-time members. It is not difficult to see why its proposal to create another, HK$2.8 million-a-year post is facing strong opposition. Instead of expanding, an alternative is to do more with less.