Advent of Uber, sharing economy provides food for thought for policymakers, who must change with changing times

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 September, 2015, 3:43pm
UPDATED : Friday, 04 September, 2015, 4:54pm

Governance has seen sea changes since Machiavelli's time. In the past, the prime objective of monarchs and rulers was to preserve and extend their powers. Citizens were their subjects and dictatorship was the norm in governing a state. 

Nowadays all over the world political leaders' major job is to address the concerns and needs of their citizens. Much of the state-sanctioned violence in the past is no longer legally nor morally acceptable. The complex and multifaceted society today requires properly formulated public policies translated into implementable measures safeguarded by laws and regulations to address these problems.

Good public policy is judged by its effectiveness and efficiency to address a certain issue. The results should be either an improvement in the livelihood of the people or to bring changes to the society economically, socially, or even politically. In some circumstances, the government cannot afford to simply learn from experience or by mistake. It is natural that some political leaders (policy makers) would wish to introduce some policy initiatives during their terms of office to benefit the community at large and to leave behind a legacy. However, this benevolent approach in public policy making may often end up in disarrays, resulting in conflicts and disharmony in society.

Because public policies are there to address the needs of the people, it is important that they take paramount consideration of the people they serve. In doing so, the right balance has to be maintained between the interests of different stakeholders.  A good government should be seen to be just, transparent and accountable. This is particularly important where the policies involve allocation of resources or vested interest groups.

The policy formulation process therefore requires careful consultation and assessment of public views.  In order to make the policy intention clear, government officials nowadays are often expected to not just advocate their proposals but to debate with and to win over the opponents. A top down or dictatorial attitude is not acceptable these days.

Another very important aspect about public policy is that it should never be static  Society changes and so do values of judgment.  Moreover, technological advances and globalisation pose additional challenges to policy makers. Public policy needs to keep up with time. New policies may need to be created or existing policies reformed or abolished. Public problems can originate and evolve in endless ways and require different policy responses (such as regulations, laws, funding and so on) on the local, national, or even international level.

Take for example the recent controversy over the legality of the operation of Uber service in Hong Kong. Traditional way of thinking and handling of the issue will only antagonise the people against the government as ignoring the practical needs of society.  Even worse, the government may be perceived as not being able to keep up with developments of the time and failing to take a lead in reforming public policy.

Lastly, even when a very strong public policy is formulated to address a problem, smooth implementation is not a given.  In order that it will not be misunderstood or misinterpreted by the public as the "benevolent dictatorial measure", timing is important.  The society must be prepared to accept a new policy.  This means doing the right thing at the right time.  This may be a signal from a failure of the existing policy or advocacy from the community.  These days the initiation of new public policies is not solely the prerogative of the government.  Everyone in the society can initiate a new policy and be a policy entrepreneur.

As more people are interested and involved in public policy, they are not just satisfied with the right to be consulted.  Many want to actively take part in the process of policy formulation. And it is certainly not enough just to consult the stakeholders, who are often the vested interest groups.  It is the duty of the administration to recognise the legitimacy of these policy initiators and to ride on their proposals.

Public policy study has become an important academic discipline in recent years. The study contributes to public policy making in two ways.  First, it provides a platform for policy analysis and evaluation in a more structured and rational environment.  Secondly, it supports policy formulation by conducting in-depth research on implemented or potential policy agenda.  Academic institutions serve as perfect venues for conducting public policy study.

To a certain extent think tanks may serve the same purpose. Traditionally government officials will tackle public policy issues by adopting a problem solving approach. Once a problem is out of the way, the policy will remain there until its failure calls for a review. However, in this rapidly changing world, whether the same approach is sustainable is to be questioned. Indeed in Hong Kong's case, increasingly concerns have been raised on why our governance system which was ever so successful in the past does not seem to work any more these days.  More soul searching questions need to be asked.

Public policy study allows meaningful interchanges between academics and practitioners, be they government officials, non-government organisations and interested private individuals or enterprises. Relevant international experiences and expertise may also be easily tapped.

Today governance is no longer the monopoly of the government. With advance in mass communications and more democratic representation, it has become the aspiration of the entire society.


Alan Lai is a Professor of Practice in the Faculty of Social Sciences at The University of Hong Kong (HKU). He was Director-General of Trade (1996-1999), Commissioner of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (1999-2002), Permanent Secretary for the Treasury (2002-2007) and The Ombudsman (2009-2014). This opinion article is prepared for the academic conference about "Why public policy matters and how it works in the fast-changing world" to be held on HKU campus on September 15, 2015.