Public servants are not known for having a strong appetite for additional work. So a department seeking to expand its roles to do more should win applause and commendation. Intriguingly, however, this is not the case for the Central Policy Unit (CPU). That the government's policy think tank has become the target of criticism suggests something is clearly amiss with its new direction.
Eyebrows were first raised when the unit chief stressed the need to engage in public relations battles and turned the agency into a "tool" to drum up pro-government opinion. Then came the news of a chief executive's ally on the CPU being given a new role in appointments to advisory bodies. This week it was further revealed that the unit wanted to take over the vetting of the HK$20 million policy research funding scheme from the Research Grants Council, raising fears that the money will only be given to studies favourable to the government.
If a think tank becoming a propaganda tool is disturbing, the expanded roles in appointments and funding approval are worrying indeed. The unit has yet to demonstrate how it can do a better job than academia in vetting research proposals. The new arrangement for appointments is equally questionable. It has to be asked how a single member has the expertise to comment on candidates drawn from different sectors.
There is no better way to wield power than holding the key to appointments and funding. The think thank members are known to be closely affiliated with the chief executive. Inevitably there are concerns whether people who hold dissenting views will be excluded from the advisory machinery or denied funding for policy research. Worse, it may arouse fears of academic freedom being curbed.
Clear functions and responsibilities are basic ingredients for government departments to operate efficiently. Once a clear portfolio has been set out, the departments are expected to deliver and be judged accordingly. This is at the core of good governance and public accountability. Regrettably, the unit still leaves a lot to be desired in terms of transparency.
That said, departments can adjust functions and responsibilities according to social circumstances and community needs. The public outcry shows the people are not convinced that the unit is going down the right track. If the Leung team is sincere about tapping the best advisers and policy studies to improve governance, a rethink is necessary.