A private think-tank which strongly supports Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen has called on the government to revamp its public consultation mode by engaging people in the policy formulation process to meet mounting aspirations and enhance effective governance and social harmony.
Former secretary for home affairs Lam Woon-kwong, an executive director of the Bauhinia Foundation Research Center who steered the taskforce studying civic engagement, unveiled the findings Friday, saying the inaugural stage of the third-term government was the right time to revamp civic engagement.
A copy of the report was submitted to Tsang's office this week and Lam called on the government to endorse the recommendations to stay abreast of changing social and political circumstances.
Lam said rational, pragmatic and constructive participation of all stakeholders in policy formulation will help smooth passage of legislation through the Legislative Council.
"Maybe one can say civic engagement costs too much time and immense efforts at social dialogue, and which may sometimes erupt into fierce squabbles, but above all it will foster a better understanding and forge a broad consensus that will lead to a smooth approval of the policy in the political arena," Lam said.
The report cited the confrontational political landscape that triggered the study.
"The massive July 1, 2003 rally and the subsequent growing demands of citizens and social groups to be part of the policymaking process in many arenas testify to the vibrancy of Hong Kong's civil society," the report said.
"Hong Kong has come to a critical juncture. The traditional mode of public consultation has failed and a new mode has yet to be established. The political and social ecology of Hong Kong has changed so drastically since 1997 that governing through an advisory system and conventional public consultation no longer satisfies public expectations.
"Demands from the civil society since 2003 have increased in scope, scale and intensity. Through protests, rallies and various other actions, civil society organizations have amassed enough societal pressure to halt the West Kowloon Cultural District development and demand a say in public projects relating to the reclamation of Victoria Harbour and the redevelopment of Kai Tak, to cite two examples.
"Not only has civil society become more vocal, but the emergence of new groups and new forms of organizations has also increased the unpredictability of societal demands and actions.
"Clearly the traditional form of public consultation no longer fully encapsulates the views of civil society, which are dynamic and changing.
"New political forces that are beyond this control - the elected legislators and political parties - have strongly resisted a top-down approach in policymaking and consultation. In addition, the media and civil society have actively exposed government failures and demanded that the government become more accountable, transparent and responsive.
"In face of these challenges, it is imperative that the government and the people of Hong Kong find a new way of engagement."
The study lauded the performance of the Council for Sustainable Development for successfully adopting a new method of public engagement emphasizing learning and deliberation and which its participants found worthwhile and rewarding.
It also criticized the failures of the Commission on Poverty, saying the body was a poor example of civic engagement as its too wideranging objectives and diverse membership made discussions too divergent and unfocused for a fruitful outcome.
The study said the key to successful civic engagement was to conduct it at a very early stage of policy development with clear-cut common goals and agendas shared among officials and civic society organization participants.
Another contributing factor would be the sincerity, commitment and open- mindedness of the government.
The report made four suggestions; every policy proposal put to the Executive Council must contain a public assessment of its process and objectives; there should be a civic engagement code for all policymaking bodies to follow which contains performance guidelines and standard operating procedures for the engagement process; an overall annual official report on civic engagement be sent to the Chief Executive, the Executive Council and the Legislative Council; and the setting up of a secretariat under the Chief Secretary for Administration.
The report also suggested new measures to change the civil service's mindset and bureaucratic culture by introducing training courses on methods, techniques and tools of civic engagement to strengthen the government's capacity to conduct such public surveys, the periodic secondment of civil servants to civil societies and more work experience at district level for administrative officers. The report also proposed civic society organizations should strengthen their capacities, accountability and transparency to serve as effective and responsible partners in civic engagement.
Lam suggested the appointment of deputy bureau heads under the expanded political appointment system to take charge of civic engagement in each bureau and for internal communication within the bureau on civic engagement.
"From the lessons of the Star Ferry saga, we learned that spontaneous public aspirations came not from groups but individuals," Lam said. "With the advent of Internet, blogs and online advocacies, a tipping point of minority views can trigger a social uproar, which is difficult to detect from mainstream public opinion."