24 October 2016
Hong Kong has a long tradition of incrementalism in public policies, a strategy that offers advantages as well as disadvantages. Photo: HKEJ
Hong Kong has a long tradition of incrementalism in public policies, a strategy that offers advantages as well as disadvantages. Photo: HKEJ

‘Top-level design’ in public administration

Members of the Savantas Policy Institute recently attended a course at the Chinese Academy of Governance. During the classes, the professors often mentioned the concept of “top-level design”, a topic that is definitely worth some discussion.

Ever since China’s 12th Five-Year Plan stressed the importance of top-level design, the engineering jargon has become a recurring term in mainland policy documents.

In the context of public administration on the mainland, top-level design refers to “viewing the panorama from the peak” and the “peak-oriented, top-down multiple-tier design”. This is different from the notion of hierarchy, which merely describes organizational structure. Top-level design is a decisive and resolute style of governance that values the bigger picture and executive capacity.

Top-level design is found not only in Beijing’s anti-corruption campaign and economic reform, but also in other policy areas. In the field of education, for instance, both mainland China and Hong Kong have the tendency to over-prioritize academic education over vocational education.

In recent years, in view of the industry needs, mainland authorities have sought to beef up vocational education and provide more opportunities for students to work part-time at enterprises in order to nurture more “practical” talents with “technical expertise”.

From the perspective of public policy studies, top-level design is closely related to comprehensive rationality decision-making model, which presumes that policy makers are equipped with sufficient information and are able to arrange preferences in a clear order and then decide on the best strategy.

At the same time, power is centrally held by policy makers, while politically neutral bureaucrats are responsible for implementing policies.

After sorting out the objectives, the government would pool resources and launch the policies forcefully. Since policy makers are concerned with the “panorama” and are undeterred by teething problems. They can grasp the crux of the problem and devise appropriate strategies more easily.

Presumptions of comprehensive rationality might not be realistic, and top-level design is not fool-proof.

First, “strong executive capacity” may hasten and worsen policy defects, dealing greater loss to the society. Second, while top-level design does not preclude consultation, it may not fully accommodate the views and values of different stakeholders.

In contrast, Hong Kong’s administration has a long tradition of incrementalism. Officials would prefer piecemeal changes to large overhauls in order to minimize opposition. As political scientist Charles Lindblom once pointed out, incrementalism can avoid serious errors and allow more time for discussion and bargaining.

On the face of it, incrementalism seems to be more prudent and democratic, but it could actually risk procrastinating solutions and reforms as there would be more time and room for maneuver by the vested interests to perpetuate the status quo. Moreover, as officials come and go, it is doubtful if the momentum of incremental reforms could be sustained in the long run.

Given the different political environments and development paths of mainland China and Hong Kong, there can be no clear-cut answer as to which one, top-level design or incrementalism, is better. Nevertheless, as the Hong Kong administration plans for the city’s future, developments on the mainland, including the mode of governance, should definitely be taken into account.

As a matter of fact, top-level design and the underlying “panoramic” thinking and pro-activeness are worth studying by the Hong Kong government. Instead of some passive and minor adjustments, many important decisions facing the city, from promoting innovation industry to balancing academic and vocational education, require holistic thinking and executive capacity.

Top-level design is different from recklessness or impatience. Instead, it is about the bigger picture and long-term vision. As China is pressing ahead with the “One Belt, One Road” initiative, for instance, various provinces on the mainland have mapped out specific plans and are striving to take part in the gigantic project.

Undoubtedly, Hong Kong wields advantages in terms of finance, professional services, talents, etc., but it is important to utilize these advantages into substantive and feasible action plans to give full play to our strengths.

Facing up to difficulties and confronting persistent socio-economic problems with long-awaited reforms will be best proof of the government’s courage and capabilities. This can help enhance public confidence and hold the society together.

Ben Lee is the author of this article.

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