Let a chief operating officer get above the politics to administer Hong Kong

We need a 'champion' to efficiently administer city day-to-day and handle quality-of-life issues, and free chief executive to formulate policies

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 October, 2013, 5:28am

As we contemplate the future strategic direction of Hong Kong, a recurring area of debate is whether the city's current operating model is the most efficient and effective in terms of the management and maintenance of the urban fabric and built environment.

So often issues of a management nature seem to become highly politicised, leading to unnecessary delays in their implementation and, on occasions, increased hardship for sectors of our society.

Apart from local matters which fall within the jurisdiction of district councils, everything to do with the day-to-day running of the city as a city (rather than as a special administrative region) falls within the remit of the chief executive and his policy secretaries. This clearly presents practical challenges, in that one day the priorities are relatively mundane, such as park management, while the next they have national and political implications.

Simply put, therefore, is there a case, although it might take time to achieve, for separating policy formulation and politics from city administration and management, with the appointment of, effectively, a chief operating officer to take responsibility for the latter? Other successful cities have a "champion", usually a mayor, whose main focus is the efficient day-to-day management of the city's infrastructure, urban fabric and community services.

As a start, one possible approach that has been mooted is the appointment of a deputy chief secretary whose role would be to take charge of such matters. But does this go far enough, as he/she would still have to work through the established administrative structure to deliver outcomes?

Is there a case for a city council, under the leadership of a chief operating officer, to which district council members and community-minded residents could be elected and which would co-ordinate the delivery of initiatives across Hong Kong?

Overall policy would still be set by the chief executive and his ministers but much of the responsibility for securing implementation, currently handled by government departments, could be undertaken by such an entity, which would be supported by its own professional team of city administrators, including district officers. Many of these professionals, of course, are already in posts in the current system, so this new approach would represent more of a change in reporting and accountability lines than a wholesale reorganisation of the existing system.

What might be the responsibilities of this council? In other cities, the mayor's office would take on prime responsibility for the maintenance and upkeep of the urban fabric and public realm such as parks and gardens, street cleaning, lighting, signage, street furniture, local transport issues, neighbourhood policing and the provision of other locallydelivered community services.

There would be a need to recognise and work closely with existing institutions such as the Housing Authority, the Hospital Authority and the Town Planning Board. But the real objective would be the separation of "city" from "state" to enable the quality- of-life issues with which we are currently struggling to be managed with the minimum of politicisation, and thus rebuild trust between the community and those with responsibility for the delivery of outcomes.

In this regard the choice of the new chief operating officer would be particularly important, as one of the roles would be to broker and co-ordinate thinking by local government institutions. Virtually all the challenges associated with waste management, water consumption, energy efficiency and air pollution require district-based education and engagement to achieve the mindset and lifestyle changes required for success, and cannot in any way be implemented by a top- down approach.

Again, in other cities occupational and property taxes are used in part or whole to fund the city's operating budget. So could we consider utilising revenues from both government rates and government rent which are payable in respect of the majority of properties in Hong Kong?

These revenues currently amount to tens of billions of dollars annually and could provide a not insignificant basis on which to start.

There is clearly a whole range of variations around this particular theme, but there does seem to be a real need to rethink the way that we run our city. The infrastructure that would need to be put in place is important, but most important of all is the "champion" who would be prepared to fight his/her corner for the benefit of the living environment and the community at large.

The chief executive and chief secretary in fairness have other responsibilities of a political and policy dimension and so cannot dedicate all their time to resolving specific issues relating to local living conditions and challenges.

Similarly bureaus and departments are constrained as to which part of the "city management" portfolio falls within their particular remit and this leads to a lack of intra-government functionality.

Whilst we clearly need to resolve our political future, we must not neglect everyday living conditions in the city and how these might be improved by a more streamlined, effective and efficient system of administration and delivery

Nicholas Brooke is the chairman, Professional Property Services Group.