Hong Kong think tanks can play positive role, if the quality of their research is up to scratch

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 August, 2015, 1:15am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 August, 2015, 1:15am

Good think tanks are like bridges between the government and the people. They challenge conventional wisdom in bureaucracy, inspire public debate for better development and fill the gap with sound policy proposals. Their roles in governance and politics have become increasingly important the world over. The situation in Hong Kong is somewhat different, though. While there is no shortage of institutes doing policy research into various areas, the quality varies. Many studies receive little more than routine media coverage without any follow-up action. Those that manage to produce well-thought-out proposals and stimulate healthy debate in society remain in the minority.

The problems have been put into perspective in a report in this newspaper. Although the city has more than four think tanks for every one million people, the third highest ratio in Asia, they do not seem to gain international recognition, according to a ranking of think tanks compiled by the University of Pennsylvania, which takes into account a wealth of factors, including the body's reputation, research quality and ability to make an impact on policymaking.

Our think tanks are naturally no match for the US Brookings Institution or Heritage Foundation in terms of influence and resources. The importance attached to policy research by our government is also low. Before the introduction of the political-appointee system in 2002, policies were still formulated by senior civil servants. Even if there is a need to tap views from outside the government, officials usually only commission consultants to help out with specific projects. The lack of transparency and accountability means there is no guarantee that the consultancy studies will be disclosed for public perusal or fully adopted for implementation.

This is not helped when political parties like to score points by bombarding the government with an array of populist but short-sighted ideas. There is more pressure to address such demands than adopting well-researched proposals from think tanks. This in turn dampens the incentive to produce quality research and hampers the growth of think tanks in the city.

That the changing political atmosphere has prompted the establishment of more think tanks is to be welcomed. But whether they will make a difference remains to be seen. It is to be hoped that they can generate a positive impact on governance and political development.