Give Hong Kong's district councils more say on local cultural and sporting affairs

Sonny Lo and Steven Hung say administrative decentralisation would not only give power back to the people and foster local leadership, it would also help to enhance government accountability

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 August, 2015, 10:50am
UPDATED : Friday, 28 August, 2015, 10:50am

While political parties are preparing for the scramble for directly elected seats in November's district council elections, society has for too long neglected the issue of how best to reform district administration to decentralise power in recreational, cultural and sporting affairs, which could also help to enhance government accountability.

When urban and regional councils were abolished, their powers returned to government. Since then, public complaints about the misuse and mismanagement of public facilities - such as tennis courts, swimming pools and football pitches - are often heard, yet sports policy remains relatively underdeveloped under the Department of Home Affairs. Although Hong Kong performs well internationally in cycling, sailing, table tennis and bowling, others, notably soccer, have not received sufficient government funding and support because of a lack of performance.

The result is a vicious cycle. A coherent, comprehensive and balanced policy for both elite and mass sports is long overdue, but how to develop it remains unclear.

Arguably, sports at the grass-roots level could be handled effectively by the 18 district councils while the government funds elite sports. Soccer, for example, can be organised at a district level so pitches are fully utilised by Football Association teams, while also integrating local secondary schools into the system. If district councils receive more funding, both sports development and public health would benefit.

However, the problem is that district councils remain basically powerless in recreation, cultural and sports policymaking. To address this, subcommittees in each district council - including the environment, public works and transport, for example - should be reformed so that officials responsible for those areas are more accountable to elected district councillors.

On the other hand, the chairpeople of these subcommittees should - as in the days of the urban and regional councils - be accountable to elected councillors.

Departments dealing with transport, the environment, public works, and recreation, culture and sports are so diverse that it's hard to achieve any kind of coordination or accountability.

To rectify the situation, the role of district officers should be revamped. In colonial days, they were the eyes and ears of the administration on all district affairs, serving as intermediaries between the government and citizens.

Sadly, post 1997, they have been largely relegated to secretarial roles and replaced by elected district councillors. Unless district officers are re-empowered, district administration will remain ineffective and overcentralised.

In the past, there was talk of resurrecting urban and regional councils. While this may prove to be too controversial, decentralising power by giving district councils more control and funding, and re-empowering district officers would be politically feasible. And to keep within the Basic Law, a balance can be found between decentralisation and the maintenance of district councils as non-political organs.

When district boards were first established by the colonial administration in the early 1980s, they were expected to nurture political leaders. Yet after 1997, that idea fell apart. But if accountability can be established within district councils and between them and the government, local political leaders should gradually develop. It is therefore time for the government, district councillors and their opponents to give some serious thought to this issue.

Sonny Lo and Steven Hung are affiliated with the Department of Social Sciences at the Hong Kong Institute of Education