By Simon Henderson
Chief Executive Carrie Lam set out in her election manifesto a desire to engage more with the public and NGOs. Through public engagement, major issues could be more easily resolved. The title of her election manifesto itself indicated a desire to ‘connect’.
The then-Chief Executive candidate said:
“To govern effectively, politically appointed officials and civil servants at all levels must interact and communicate effectively with the Legislative Council and District Council members of all political groups, professional bodies, NGOs, Government committees and the general public. We also need to allow different stakeholders to participate in public affairs, and resolve major issues in society through public engagement.”
However, the Government’s approach since then, including the Policy Address itself, has not lived up to this statement. On 17 July 2017, the Government announced the commencement of the ‘Policy Address Study’. Chief Executive Lam said that with only three months to go, it was “hard to conduct a full-scale public consultation exercise for the Policy Address”.
The decision not to undertake a public consultation was a marked departure from past practice. In recent years the consultations for the Policy Address commenced roughly three months in advance. For example, in 2015 there were 83 days and in 2016 there were 107 days. However, despite having 86 days in 2017, a decision was made only to conduct a ‘study’.
Limited consultation extends to many government departments and bureaus. Engagement with non-government organisations is deteriorating. The Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau (CMAB) used to run a Human Rights Forum every year, in some case two and three times per year. The Forum has not been held in 2017, with the last time being 12 July 2016. Minutes from that meeting, 15 months later, are still not publicly available. CMAB, the primary bureau responsible for human rights policy development, has refused to meet with NGOs. Similarly, the Department of Justice has also refused to meet NGOs.
Proper consultation delivers better outcomes. Benefits include; understanding the attitudes of the people affected, ensuring that there are no unintended consequences and confirming the accuracy of data on which an analysis is based. It was these goals that helped, in part, to establish the “Be the Smart Regulator” Programme in 2007. A decade later, it is clear that the Programme has not been applied consistently to the regulatory process, as noted by the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce in their Policy Address submission.
The Government should adopt a default position of full public consultation for all forms of policy development. It would help to minimise public pushback on measures, such as the co-location plan, which despite months of “discussions”, has not been subject to consultation.
Hong Kong will come under increasing international attention in the coming year as it is reviewed through the Third Cycle United Nations Universal Periodic Review (UPR). The UPR considers the human rights records of all UN Member States, with Hong Kong being reviewed at the same time as China and Macau. Each State is provided with an opportunity declare what actions they have taken to improve the human rights situations in their countries and to fulfil their human rights obligations.
There is an opportunity now to reset the relationship between NGOs and the government on human rights issues. Measures such as the Policy Address, UPR and other policy developments can be used a means to improve dialogue and provide greater capacity for the participation of NGO actors in policy development.
In her Policy Address, Chief Executive Lam should outline a substantially reformed consultation process with NGOs. Doing so would help improve policy outcomes for the people of Hong Kong and ensure that Hong Kong’s competitive advantage, based on the prevailing values of rule of law, judicial independence and protection of rights and freedoms, can be maintained into the future.