Time to revamp Hong Kong's neglected district councils

Sonny Lo says no political reform can be complete without looking into Hong Kong's neglected district councils, so representatives can truly serve as government advisers

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 November, 2013, 4:37am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 November, 2013, 4:37am

While the current public discussion on political reform in Hong Kong focuses on the methods for electing the chief executive and Legislative Council, an examination of how our district councils function seems to have been neglected.

At most, there has been some discussion centred on whether district councillors should join the Election Committee selecting the chief executive, although they can already, from last year, nominate candidates running for the "super seats" in the Legco direct elections.

Arguably, there's a narrow focus on how to help politicians climb the ladder from the districts to the upper levels of Hong Kong politics.

Still, this all ignores the issue of how to rejuvenate the work of district councils, whose operation appears to have lost its sense of purpose in recent years. District councils were established in 1982 (then called district boards) and today are supposed to advise the government on district affairs, among other issues. Yet, although some principal officials during Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's tenure did consult with various district councillors, such sessions soon became irregular. T he Leung Chun-ying administration has only occasionally held such sessions.

But if consultations between principal officials and district councils on government policies are to go beyond ad hoc meetings, then the process needs to be formalised and institutionalised.

Second, the internal operation of each district council needs reforming.

Councillors have been increasingly politicised over the years; some have joined political parties. Nevertheless, seating in the councils fails to reflect party alignments. If councillors were to sit with their party members, the atmosphere for discussion and debate would be enhanced significantly.

Secondary school students and teachers specialising in liberal studies should also be invited regularly to attend meetings in their districts. This would stimulate public and media interest in council affairs, and inspire elected councillors to give better performances.

District councils were heavily publicised in the early 1980s, and then briefly during the Tsang administration, but they have faded from the limelight of late. There are few reports on the councils, save for scandals involving elected members.

Third, the gap between councillors and ordinary citizens has to be narrowed. Although some elected representatives work hard at the district level and fight for the interests of their constituents, many others appear to be invisible in their districts and do not have the power to influence government policies.

Many citizens also feel that they cannot influence district administration. For instance, in spite of the fact that many residents in Tung Chung complain about the lack of leisure, health and market facilities there, the councillors elected in the district appear to be powerless to influence policies, leading to a huge communication gap between citizens and the local administration.

This sense of powerlessness on the part of many elected councillors and citizens has to be rectified. The government could go a long way to achieving this by respecting the opinions of elected representatives and publicising the work of district councils through district newspapers.

Fourth, councillors' limited influence is partly due to the political structure of district administration, in which the most powerful body remains the District Management Committee, chaired by the district officers in the 18 districts.

The management committees consist of departmental representatives whose job is to discuss and resolve local issues. However, in reality, they overlap with the functions of the district councils, especially council subcommittees.

Although each chair and vice-chair of the district councils, as well as the district council subcommittees' chairs, are members of each District Management Committee, it may be better to consider abolishing the management committees and instead invite all the relevant government officials to attend the meetings of the district council subcommittees.

The role of district officers can perhaps be strengthened by having follow-up meetings with government officials and reporting the government action back to district councils.

Ironically, prior to the introduction of elected seats in district councils, district officers were the most powerful players. But, as more elected members joined the councils, they began to play the role of co-ordinators between the district councillors and government officials.

Any genuine reform of district councils must consider empowering district officers and making them real government spokespeople in each council.

With the institutionalisation of annual meetings between principal officials and district councillors, the empowerment of district officers would, without doubt, improve the entire operation of administering the districts.

Finally, the size of district councils needs to be revised, given the gradual increase in the population, especially in the New Territories.

If district councils are to remain crucial bodies advising the government on matters affecting the well-being of the people in the various districts - such as the use of public facilities, the priorities of government programmes and the allocation of public funds for the community - then the time is ripe to ensure elected district councillors are fully representative of the changing population and their changing needs.

No political reform in Hong Kong can be considered complete without the reform of district councils being on the agenda.

Sonny Lo is professor and head of the department of social sciences at the Hong Kong Institute of Education