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Environmental, social and governance

Shockingly low response rate to Hong Kong government public consultations revealed

Of the 25 consultations launched last year, 15 had fewer than 100 responses, while a couple only got two replies

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 January, 2018, 1:03pm
UPDATED : Monday, 22 January, 2018, 2:05pm

Some of the Hong Kong government’s policies were guided by only “a couple of” views collected from the public during consultations, according to research by the Post.

Of 25 consultations completed last year – most lasting about two to three months – 15 got fewer than 100 public responses. Of the 15, nine got fewer than 20 responses, and two of them received only two submissions.

The tiny number of responses has prompted questions over the quality of the consultations, and critics called for an overhaul of the system designed to take the public pulse.

Information made available on the government website GovHK showed the public had been asked to comment on a new proposal every two weeks on average in 2017.

Subjects ranged from energy labelling on products and arrangements for the 900 MHz and 1800 MHz mobile frequency spectrum, to the “smart city” blueprint and election arrangements.

A seven-week public consultation on proposals to amend the Chinese Medicine Ordinance in early 2017 received two submissions, according to the Department of Health. Both supported the government plans to empower the health director to order a recall of Chinese herbal medicine on public health grounds.

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A month-long consultation on updating the standards of toys and children’s products ended last month. It attracted just two written submissions, according to the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau.

A two-month consultation on a new franchise for the Star Ferry, which ended in April 2017, received eight submissions, according to the Transport Department. According to a document given to legislators, officials started talks with the ferry company, based on the views collected, to “bargain for the most favourable franchise terms”.

Among the handful of consultations with a high number of responses were those on topics such as gender recognition (about 15,000 submissions), a review of electoral arrangements (15,400 submissions), and the “smart city” blueprint to harness new technology in the way the city is run (more than 16,600 submissions and online responses).

Andrew Fung Ho-keung, chief executive at the Hong Kong Policy Research Institute – a think tank of which former Legislative Council president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing is vice-chair – said: “Officials can of course say consultation is not a numbers game. And there are also many other channels to collect public views, like district council, Legislative Council, other advisory bodies.

“But the poor response to some consultation exercises is a symptom of our current system.”

He blamed it on the lack of a comprehensive public consultation policy on when and how to call for Hongkongers’ opinions.

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He cited the controversial joint checkpoint plan at the future West Kowloon terminus of the cross-border high-speed rail line. The government has rejected calls for a formal consultation on the grounds that there have been considerable opportunities for the public to express their views.

“But the government seems to have a penchant for bombarding the public with consultation papers on other mundane subjects or subjects involving high technicality,” Fung said.

Raymond Mak Ka-chun, a governor of the policy think tank Path of Democracy, shared similar views and warned the government could “miss out a lot of views of the general public” when working out a policy if the response to the consultation was too poor.

The Hong Kong government has guidelines on public consultations for internal reference, listing some “general guiding principles”, such as that consultations should be conducted in a timely manner, the scope of a consultation should be as wide as possible, and adequate publicity should be given to the consultation, according to 2016 research by Fung’s institute.

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But the decision of when and how to consult the public on any specific policies or proposals rests with individual bureaus and departments.

Approaches to the exercises differ around the world.

In the UK, there is a consultation coordinator within government departments and officials are required to seek his or her advice on doing a consultation. The European Union has a consultation webpage “Your Voice in Europe” for the public to express views on policies.

Professor Lau Siu-kai, former head of the government’s Central Policy Unit, said the role of public consultations had become “secondary” nowadays.

“Sometimes, departments may treat it as procedural to issue a paper for public consultation, lest some people would shout loudly afterwards that they were not consulted when a policy was in the making,” Lau said.

But he said that usually only those with very strong views on a policy, like green groups, would bother to respond to a government consultation. “In many cases, most people do not bother much about what the government is doing.”

Tik Chi-yuen, chairman of the centrist political party Third Side, shared Lau’s view and added: “The government will not abandon a policy because too few people have responded to the consultation. So, some people may think it is pointless to submit their views because they do not believe the government would listen anyway.

“The change of the political ecology has also made the government shift its attention to lobbying lawmakers instead of mustering public support. Even when you get wide public support, your plan could get shot down or delayed by the legislature if you can’t appease the opposition camp.”

Tik cited the political reform package in 2015.

Meanwhile, on the poor response to the consultation on amendments to the Chinese Medicine Ordinance, the Health Department said: “During the consultation period, two written submissions were received which supported the legislative proposal. Shortly after the consultation period, another submission was received which also supported the legislative proposal. In the [subsequent Legislative Council] bills committee meeting … there were a total of 17 deputations or individuals which provided submissions.”

A spokesman for the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau said of the response to its consultation on updating the safety standards for toys and children’s products: “This is a regular exercise that is being conducted annually.

“As this is a regular exercise … it has been our experience that only several responses were received during our past consultations.”