Hong Kong lacks a clear code of practice on public consultations
Lam Chi-yan says the Wang Chau controversy highlights the need for the government to redefine its guidelines on public engagement and the role of advisory bodies, in order to win greater trust
The practice of Hong Kong government officials to privately consult interest groups on public policy or projects has stirred vigorous debate in the wake of the Wang Chau controversy. People were outraged to learn earlier this year that the government scaled back housing development on a brownfield site after talks with rural leaders linked to it, and roundly criticised such “soft lobbying”, or informal consultation.
What role, if any, should such consultation play? In fact, how should the government go about getting feedback on policies and projects? As part of its research on public engagement, the Hong Kong Vision Project looked at how other governments handled public consultations.
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First, informal consultations are widely used by governments as a way of communicating with stakeholders. Secondly, many societies worldwide have a code of practice or guidelines that civil servants have to follow.
The UK requires officials to seek expert advice from a consultation coordinator who works within government departments. Others impose a time limit: the European Union, for instance, advises member-states to complete a public consultation within four weeks. It further specifies exemptions from formal consultations, in cases where there are no policy alternatives, or when the policy contains business secrets or involves security threats.
In Hong Kong, the government issued some guidelines in 2003, but details are lacking and officials have a lot of discretion to interpret general principles like “timely consultation”. In fact, the guidelines are not promoted much to government departments, officials normally do not follow them, and the public or stakeholders have no idea of the document’s existence.
The government must redefine its guidelines by learning from best practises elsewhere, and from its own past successes. Standard procedures could be set out, such as requiring officials to include relevant information on public consultation in their memorandum for the Executive Council or policy documents, and specifying the means of advocacy.
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Further, the government should improve the way it collects expert opinion from advisory bodies. At present, such bodies lack transparency: the public has no idea why particular individuals are appointed. Advisory bodies may provide a link between the government and the public, as long as the public sees appointees as trustworthy and representative. The system of advisory bodies should be improved so that they may work as a complement to public consultation.
Lam Chi-yan is a researcher with the Hong Kong Vision Project, at the Hong Kong Policy Research Institute