Recently I travelled with a delegation of my Legislative Council colleagues to Germany to exchange ideas about constitutional development and youth affairs with our German counterparts.
What I learned about the sustained efforts Germans put into facilitating public engagement in the policy formulation process made a deep impression on me.
As Hong Kong is now in the midst of a heated controversy over political reform, I believe there is a lot we can learn from the German experience.
In recent years, several government policies have sparked controversy in Hong Kong, and even though the administration carried out a lot of consultations about these policy initiatives, it has still been unable to gain a clear public mandate.
For example, many regard the two stages of public consultation over the 2017 electoral reform as disingenuous, because the government already took a stand even before the public consultations began.
On other issues, like the Northeast New Territories development program, the public was unable to reach a consensus even though extensive public consultations were conducted.
The failure of public consultations has its roots in our undemocratic political system and the low credibility of our government, but the fact that consultations often lack transparency and don’t follow due process further undermines them.
Representative democracy and party politics in Germany are fully developed, but even so, government officials still put a lot of effort into carrying out public consultations over policy initiatives to make sure the public’s voices are heard, and that should provide us with some useful insights.
On the fourth day of our trip, we visited the northern German city of Bremen, where local officials from the environmental, construction and transport department briefed us on how a public transport policy initiative was developed.
They said a public consultation was carried out in four stages between 2012 and 2014.
At stage one, policy goals and objectives were identified.
At stage two, a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis was done to evaluate the existing situation.
At stage three, further studies were carried out with regard to feasibility.
At stage four, the focus was on cost effectiveness.
When the proposal was finalized, it was put to the vote at the state legislature.
The officials who briefed us on the process stressed that policy formulation took both the effectiveness and the viability or acceptability of proposed actions into account.
And the main aim of policy consultation was to allow citizens to understand the details of the policy initiatives, so that every one of them knew they had a stake in the outcome of the proposed actions.
Since the public was involved at the early stages of policy formulation, its views were reflected and its expectations fully incorporated into the policy details, thereby establishing substantial credibility for government actions.
This approach to policy development not only guarantees popular support but also offers the general public a sense of empowerment.
In contrast, public involvement is often neglected throughout the process of policy formulation in Hong Kong.
Policy initiatives are usually put together behind closed doors by bureaucrats, and public consultation is often just a formality aimed at generating support rather than collecting views.
To create an impression that the public is in favour of a policy initiative, policymakers often invite pro-government groups to send in hundreds of thousands of letters of support.
The voices of those with different views are often overwhelmed, just as during the recent consultation on political reform.
To make matters worse, the administration often has a predetermined position regarding the policy initiatives it is pitching.
As a result, public consultations in Hong Kong often lack credibility, and members of the public are seldom enthusiastic about them, because they know the government is just putting on a show.
The German officials we met summed up some crucial elements in policy formulation.
First, lots of communication is instrumental in engaging the public.
Second, policymakers must avoid bias and make sure every stakeholder has an equal chance to express his or her views, so that no particular sector or interest group will dominate the discussion.
Hong Kong’s colonial government was good at pitching policy initiatives through public consultations.
After 1997, the city’s government simply inherited this legacy, but it has failed to keep up with the times.
These days, the government often confuses consultation with promotion, and the majority of the public is increasingly frustrated with the fact that its opinions don’t make a difference.
It is true that the undemocratic nature of our political system often discourages members of the public from actively participating in the policymaking process.
But since civil society in Hong Kong has come of age, I believe we can eventually come up with a model in which our policy formulation process can achieve more credibility and acceptability.
This article first appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on March 12. [Chinese version 中文版]
Translation by Alan Lee
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