A bit of advice on advisory committees

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 May, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 May, 2003, 12:00am

The Hong Kong government has 470 advisory committees comprising thousands of members to offer it advice on almost every aspect of life, from allocation of government quarters to the prevention of legionnaires' disease and the practicalities of boating and yachting. In the spirit of democracy, anyone can nominate themselves to serve on any of the committees by simply filling in a form published on the website of the Home Affairs Bureau.

Look closer, and the picture is not so sanguine. An investigation by this newspaper in 1999 found that the government had a central database of about 17,000 personalities who might be considered for appointments. Still, it was apparently short of 'suitable' candidates. It seemed that a small number of people were hot favourites among bureaucrats in charge of filling up the committees. One was a concurrent member of 13 committees. A recent study by several pro-democracy political groups has found that dozens of people, mainly businessmen and professionals, have been appointed to seven or more advisory bodies, despite a rule against anyone serving on more than six bodies. At the same time, at least 60 bodies have breached another guideline barring members from serving on any one body for more than six years.

These are not the only problems. Over the years, the media has time and again exposed serious problems of absenteeism among individual members, who were re-appointed despite failing to show up at most meetings. Various studies have also pointed to an apparent bias in favour of appointing people friendly to the administration.

There are good reasons for governments to set up advisory committees of one kind or another, to help gauge the views of different sectors and to involve publicly minded citizens in the governance of Hong Kong. But do our 11 bureaus really need the service of 470 such bodies? And what is there to stop them from appointing yes-men to offer them advice that lends credence to their pet policies?

In launching the accountability system for principal officials last year, the chief executive pledged to conduct a review of the system of advisory committees. He would do well by considering the findings of a recent study by the Legislative Council. This showed that Hong Kong has no specific policy on the appraisal of members and evaluation of the effectiveness of individual advisory committees, and no code of practice or guidelines on establishing a committee or appointment and removal of members.