Hong Kong needs new blood in public policy research

Benson Luk says the politicised youth of today's Hong Kong must be persuaded of the value of non-partisan public policy study in a democratic society

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 June, 2015, 5:10pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 18 June, 2015, 5:10pm

Since the handover of sovereignty 18 years ago, major social movements in Hong Kong have inspired young people to form groups. But the focus of these youth organisations appears to have changed over the years.

After the July 1 march in 2003, numerous youth associations sprouted up that focused on policy research and encompassing multiple political beliefs. These include the Roundtable group and the 30SGroup, which are still active today.

By contrast, the youth organisations formed in recent years, whether pro-Beijing or pro-democracy, have all been built on a specific political stance. These groups have tended to be a response to a particular issue, such as constitutional reform, rather than about policies in general.

The change reflects a loss of interest in policy research among young people. Yet, it has never been more needed. Sociologist Lau Siu-kai, the former head of the government's Central Policy Unit, believed that, increasingly, government decisions would come to rely on public policy studies.

Why, then, are young people not taking policy research seriously? There are two main reasons.

First, as social media becomes more popular, more people have got used to compressed information and quick judgment. In-depth discussion is discouraged. In the past, young writers were proud to be writing for newspapers. Today, they regard the number of "likes" and "shares" on their online posts as a measure of success. The key to a good article is no longer how solid its argument is, but whether it can go viral.

Serious policy discussions during public hearings at the Legislative Council are rarely reported by the media, which tend to focus on wild accusations and radical behaviour. There's little chance a genuine policy debate will go viral.

Second, it is harder now for policy research to be effective. Despite criticism that the previous government did not carry out large-scale policies, officials then were actually enthusiastic about policy advice and suggestions, even from civil society. By contrast, the current government seems to take in only suggestions that already coincide with its policy agenda, while ignoring the rest.

Furthermore, public information is not always accessible for the purpose of research. For example, during the course of organising a public policy lobbying competition for university students, one of the initial topics - on Hong Kong's electricity market and the government's agreements with the two power companies - had to be discarded due to the lack of publicly available information. With such constraints, policy research has become less appealing to young people.

Based on the vote share won by the different parties at the last Legislative Council election, we can estimate that about a quarter of the Hong Kong population support either the pro-Beijing or the pro-democracy parties. As many as three-quarters of people can be considered politically moderate or conservative. These more "neutral" members of the public are the ones who would seriously evaluate a policy.

However, they need the necessary information to do so. In any democracy, if members of the public are to participate in policymaking, they must be able to give intelligent feedback about a policy. Here's where policy studies that analyse specialised data and knowledge can help.

One of the functions of policy research is to enlighten and educate the general public. It can also lead the advancement of mainstream ideas across all sections of society, instead of just pandering to a certain group of voters.

No matter how the chief executive is elected in 2017, a society's development relies on the sound implementation of government policies that have substantial public support. Thus, Hong Kong doesn't need more politics; it needs more substantive policy discussions and research.

Benson Luk, a former public affairs consultant, is convener of GeNext, a new youth platform founded by young people with no political affiliation but with different political beliefs