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Carrie Lam

How the China model can lead revamp of controversial Hong Kong think tank

Francis Neoton Cheung says the sheer scale and heft of the National Development and Reform Commission has been a major force behind China’s social and economic reforms, and it should provide inspiration as Hong Kong seeks more open and effective policymaking

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 July, 2017, 11:45am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 July, 2017, 6:47pm

New Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has pledged to revamp the Central Policy Unit (CPU), the controversial government think tank she called a “black box”. Lam wants it to be a government policy and project coordination unit, responsible for research and evaluation of novel policy ideas put forward by the public.

A strong CPU is vital to the functioning of any administration. As a review gets under way to find the right job description, the government should think big.

The CPU was set up in 1989 to advise the governor (and then the chief executive after 1997), chief secretary and financial secretary on policy matters and public opinion trends. Its influence surged under Leung Chun-ying, as it developed great sway over appointments to the government’s advisory and statutory bodies.

Lam’s determination to overhaul the CPU will return it to its founding purpose

Lam’s determination to overhaul the CPU will not only return it to its founding purpose but, more importantly, will achieve cross-bureau policy coordination. In reforming the unit, the government should ambitiously consider modelling it after Beijing’s massive National Development and Reform Commission. Given its strategic long-term planning role, the social reforms and sustained national economic growth of the past two decades are in no small part down to the real policy coordination and execution heft the commission enjoys.

Scholars express concern over Central Policy Unit’s control of research fund

Taking a proven national lead, the Hong Kong government should invest major resources to scale up the think tank. A revamped CPU should serve three main functions.

First, as a research and advocacy body, it should define the most pressing issues facing Hong Kong and develop strategic long-term plans for economic and social development.

A governance breakthrough that can realign conflicting dynamics and simply get the job done is long overdue

Second, the new CPU should build a professional, representative platform for public participation and policy research. This will make the government’s thinking more nuanced and grounded, and allow CPU members more opportunities for public persuasion at an early stage of policymaking.

Third, as a high-level policy coordination arm of the government, it should identify promising projects and streamline approvals and resource allocation.

By making the CPU a more open and informed body, it will boost the implementation prospects for government policies.

With a host of tough challenges facing Hong Kong, a governance breakthrough that can realign conflicting dynamics and simply get the job done is long overdue. The CPU revamp is an opportunity for progress that cannot be missed.

Francis Neoton Cheung is the convenor of Doctoral Exchange (www.doctoralexchange.hk), a public policy research collective, and a former member of the Land and Building Advisory Committee