Towards better policy-making in Hong Kong
Mr Lam Woon-kwong, former civil servant, was the Foundation's guest speaker on 7 January 2011. Below is his speech.
Thank you, George, Chairman and Friends. When I was asked whether I should speak on the subject of Equal Opportunity, I thought that since you are all democrats, you would naturally embrace the value of equal opportunity, so there is no point in speaking to the converted. I should speak on something I don't even have to prepare for - the subject of better policy making. I have been there, done it.
I'd like to start with a standard policy-making model - i) Strategic Vision, ii) Policy Formulation, iii) Consultation iv) Decision Making, v) Implementation and vi) Process and Impact Evaluation. I would like to focus on: Policy Making and Consultation.
Better policy making is a universal need and the demand for it is not confined to Hong Kong. With half a century spent on the pursuit of various "ism"s and with a much better educated and informed public, many people around the world are getting sick of ideology. Instead, they want to know where the real "beef" is and if the "beef" is as good as governments have promised.
So institutions such as the OECD have come up with "tips" on what are the best practices for government policy making. On the surface, they look like "motherhood and apple pie" stuff. But if you were to look at those papers in detail, you would find that making better "apple pie" is in fact very difficult.
Why would that be the case? I think partly because governments are conservative or at least staffed by conservative people. This, in itself, may not be a bad thing. But it breeds a "risk averse" culture, particularly in Hong Kong where civil servants have been deeply involved in the policy formulation, decision making and political process. Before the days when there were politicians in Hong Kong, senior civil servants - doubled up as quasi-politicians. They position themselves as the "no axe to grind" defender of the public interest. And all outsiders are unwelcomed intruders - representatives of special interests - with views that must be examined with a heavy dose of cynicism.
The typical way to handle policy making - from a risk-averse standpoint - is to form a committee. But having done that, decisions are often based on the views of a very small circle. From the "Planning Committee" come the "Preconceived Answers" hidden in the form of "Consultation Papers".
Another problem with the civil service is that talents are almost entirely inbred: the "revolving door" being very difficult to implement. And with a fast-changing world, our civil service lacks specialist expertise. And even if some officers may be trained to handle specialist policy areas, they lack the capacity to handle the complex policy-making process. So we end up lagging quite significantly behind in areas such as Information, Innovation, Technology and Creative Industries.
Another frequent trap, for permanent civil servants, now topped with a layer of political appointees, is to look for the easy way out. Often politicians are looking for a quick solution to rescue their declining popularity. Under pressure, there is no time for research and analysis. Policy makers jump to ad hoc conclusions in the hope that there will be at least some "band-aid" cure. But such an approach brings significant adverse consequences.
On the other side of the same coin, inertia is a problem for governments worldwide. All too often, policy issues are brushed under the "too difficult" carpet in the hope they will take care of themselves. In Hong Kong, the "Market" is often the excuse for inaction as it is assumed that the "Market" would take care of many ills.
Of course, vested interests are always at work too, for all governments. Hong Kong is by and large clean, but that does not stop the vested interests from trying to manipulate government officials and the media.
Indecision is also frequently at work. How often do we keep consulting and never decide? Healthcare reform is a "prominent" example. Let us hope some decisions are forthcoming for this round. When this is done too often, policy paralysis would be the outcome. And Policy Addresses and Budget Speeches would be void of meaningful policies.
I must emphasize that these problems are not peculiar to Hong Kong. Policy-making in the real world is messy, mundane and a very hard balancing act. But a key function of government is to plan for the future. So it has to make policies to the best of its practical ability.
Governments tend to ignore the fact that we do not necessarily need to "reinvent the wheel". Often, the "wheel" is already there, what is lacking is the will power and the political capacity to get it done. I will now quote one example on successful urban planning in Hong Kong, as illustration.
The Kai Tak Planning Study
The study project first started in 1991. The purpose was to plan for the use of Kai Tak once the airport is closed down in 1997.
Actually it took seven years for the various departments to come up with the outline zoning plan. And the 1998 proposal involved extensive reclamation both inside and outside the apron of the runway, resulting in a new town with 299 hectares of reclaimed land. Once it was published, there were universally negative feedbacks. People did not want a lot of housing there. They were also worried that all the reclaimed lands would be dominated by "roads" resulting in noise and air pollution.
Heritage preservation was not considered. There were sport lobbyists trying to build a new stadium there. There were others who argued for a new cruise terminal. There were also green groups who argued for a "Green Kai Tak". Topping it all, people were fearful of further reclamation to the harbour. Mr. C.H. Tung, had to ask for the plan to be done all over again.
A much scaled-down plan surfaced after another two and a half years. The 2002 Outline Zoning Plan envisaged reclamation of only 133 hectares and incorporated quite a lot of the public requests. But then the various harbour reclamation proposals had triggered one of the biggest public protests, resulting in the Court of Final Appeal ruling that Government must meet three conditions before land can be reclaimed from the harbour:
Consequently, the 2002 Plan had to be redone again.
A very open approach was chosen for the subsequent planning exercise. A Harbour-front Enhancement Committee was established and it took the Committee two and a half years to come up with this final 2006 Outline Zoning Plan for Kai Tak. All the reclamation was trimmed and yet all the requirements of the stakeholders were met.
How did they do it?
The Committee started with a very inclusive approach in their committee representation. One of the pressure groups, Society for Protection of the Harbour - the most vocal one that took the Government to Court - was also included. The business side was included. The Conservancy Association, Friends of the Earth, the Real Estate Developers Association, the Hong Kong Tourism Board and all the related professional bodies were there. Stakeholders were asked to nominate their representatives, which was a rather democratic process.
Instead of having to worry about sectoral interests dominating the discussion, they actually balanced each other out quite well in the process.
The Committee also managed to tap a big pool of professional advice - free of charge. For these professional bodies, once they felt that they could make genuine contribution, took it seriously. The professional bodies did not come with opinions of individuals; they came with prepared views after consulting their own profession. This makes the process much more meaningful. There were no hidden agendas, the meetings were open to the public and all papers were accessible to the public through the internet. The other thing was they were not managed by a secretariat staffed by Government officials. Instead, they engaged a private consultant to manage the entire civic engagement process, thus taking it away from bureaucratic control. And the Committee topped all of this by collectively nominating and appointing a trusted professor, LEE Chack-fan, to chair the committee. With a positive and experienced player at the helm, the whole process worked well.
For the consultation to succeed, there were other elements. They included, allowing the stakeholders and the public sufficient time to learn what it was all about and how the project would impact upon stakeholders. This approach allowed more considered response. The time it took was two and a half years. That sounds like a long time, but considering its repeated failures as in the case of WKCD, two and a half years was time well worth spending. The consultation must have resources too. Hundreds of meetings, focus groups and exhibitions were held. There was also the report-writing, all adding up to many work hours. The process cost a few million dollars, but if you consider the cost of the whole South-east Kowloon Planning project, what is a few million dollars?
Perhaps it was because the Government had lost the case at the Court of Final Appeal, so it appeared that there was really no unmovable agenda. But in the end, the outcome satisfied Government too.
Inclusiveness gave the consultation a high degree of legitimacy. The various group argued bitterly with each other at the beginning, but once they knew they were being taken seriously, they began to play a more positive role. Eventually, they built up credibility and trust amongst themselves and co-ownership of the project amongst all stakeholders. The result was a widely accepted plan, which is now being implemented.
That was a well recorded success case.
In modern policy making, Government must help conflicting stakeholders see the common goal and help focus their mind on a common set of objectives. But the best way forward is to leave the engagement process open and empower the stakeholders to make their own rules to resolve their differences through organized interaction, guided and arbitrated hopefully by a positive and trusted player at the helm.
But if the lesson has already been learned and the precedent for success is recorded, how did we end up in our present impasse? The problem is again complex but it boils down to the common syndrome: lack of genuine desire to be open, lack of will to engage the opposition and be seriously inclusive, lack of honesty to admit failures, and in the end lack of sincere commitment from the top.
And the most difficult point is honesty. In the days of "spin doctors", it is difficult to be honest. In my view, this is the worst "skill" of modern day government. Governments of course, have to present their own argument in the best possible light. But you must not "spin", because it often means lying or hiding the reality from the public. You can do it once or twice or even three times. But after a while, public credibility will be lost. Distrust, once embedded in the public's mind, will be difficult to eradicate.
I think the best policy for any government, knowing that I would be speaking in futility since no government will listen to that, the best policy is to be honest. Honesty does not necessarily mean exposing your weaknesses and incompetence all the time, but it does mean that mistakes should be admitted when they are made, rather than trying to spin them into something "good". Otherwise, it would rot the government deep down.
Government should accept that some policies cannot be taken on board when the public is not ready for it, or when the political environment makes it impracticable. But government should tell the public and not try to cover the truth up.
I will end my presentation here. I have left very little time for questions but that might be the intention. Thank you.
The above does not necessarily represent the views of the Foundation.