Don't let row between watchdog and bureau obscure facts on cold calling

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 August, 2014, 4:54am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 August, 2014, 4:54am

Officials do not always see eye to eye with government-appointed watchdogs and their policy recommendations. But few go so far as to hit back with strong rhetoric. The revelation that the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau has privately criticised the Privacy Commissioner for conducting a study on telemarketing is therefore disturbing. It calls into question the government's respect for the commission's independence.

It does not take a university survey to prove that telemarketing has become more aggressive in recent years. Those who are harassed by cold calls every day will agree that the law banning pre-recorded promotional messages should be widened to cover person-to-person calls. To the credit of the privacy watchdog, it has commissioned a University of Hong Kong research team to canvass opinion on an issue that has been bothering millions of phone users, and has given the bureau a much-needed push to reconsider a ban.

Regrettably, the bureau sees it in a different light. On the one hand, it told the public it would handle the issue with an open mind. But on the other hand, it wrote to the watchdog expressing disappointment. Writing in his blog, the commissioner disclosed that the bureau felt it was "kept in the dark" and wasn't given a "fair hearing". The bureau also questioned the credibility of the study, and told the commission to tackle the problem by amending the privacy law, which falls under another policy bureau.

The commerce bureau could have aired its concerns in public for further debate. It probably wanted to keep the discord away from the media and wrote in private. But the move has obviously backfired. The public may get the feeling that the bureau is passing its responsibility to others. The watchdog's independence could also be seen as undermined.

The relationship between government departments and statutory watchdogs need not be antagonistic. While agencies like the Ombudsman and Audit Commission do give officials a hard time every now and then, their independence and credibility mean they can identify inadequacies from a different perspective, and help garner public support for policy changes. They are government's working partners rather than enemies.

The dispute should not distract attention from the nuisance caused by cold calls. The bureau should examine the watchdog's recommendations with an open mind.