21 September 2019
Members of the pro-establishment camp hold placards in support of the Innovation and Technology Bureau. Photo: Wen Wei Po
Members of the pro-establishment camp hold placards in support of the Innovation and Technology Bureau. Photo: Wen Wei Po

Tech bureau saga reveals an inconvenient truth

Even before he took office in 2012, Leung Chun-ying had indicated that he favors a restructuring in government departments and bureaus, which would involve the creation of two new entities — the Cultural Bureau, and the Innovation and Technology Bureau (ITB).

Yet from the very beginning Leung had no intention to consult the public on the reorganization proposals. That made even some pro-government legislators uneasy, prompting a reluctance to go with the administration’s hardline approach to force the bills through the Legco.

But I see the defeat as a blessing in disguise to Leung.

Three years into the term, Leung has exhausted his tricks and yet achieved nothing. Even in the field of housing, supposedly Leung’s area of expertise, the problem has just been getting worse.

Had the ITB bill been rubberstamped as Leung had wished, he would have had a hard time explaining away his failure to boost local research and innovation after hefty spending.

But Leung can never reflect on his own. Instead, he pushed government allies in the Legco for a quick passage of the ITB funding application, while coming short on the new bureau’s specific role, scope of work and plans.

Now thanks to the indirect, tacit filibustering on the part of some pro-establishment lawmakers through prolonged debates on the matter, the bill has now been aborted and can only be re-tabled in the next legislative year.

This is exactly what we need. The public now have more time to assess whether we really need the new bureau.

ITB may take over some functions from other existing government bureaus and departments, like Food and Health Bureau’s role in the development of traditional Chinese medicine, Environment Bureau’s work on renewable energy and waste management, Efficiency Unit’s promotion of paperless government operations, and the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau’s Digital 21 Strategy.

The only new initiative for ITB may be bilateral exchanges on science and technology, but that can be better implemented through a consortium of local universities and other stakeholders like Hong Kong Science & Technology Parks Corp. and Applied Science and Technology Research Institute.

Like the pan-democratic lawmakers said, such a bureau is not necessary.

Scientific innovation is never the expertise of any governmental agency or committee. There is no ITB-like ministerial-level department in Singapore, South Korea or Taiwan, nor there is any such bureau or ministry under the Chinese State Council.

The Leung administration has been doing everything but the right thing.

Now, what should a responsible government do to foster innovation? Let’s take a look at the role of the US government in this regard. 

There are two related agencies – Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) – on the federal level.

OSTP, which is under the Executive Office of the President, has no administrative power. It is largely an advisory body made up of around 40 policy researchers and its head is called Science Advisor to President.

NSTC is a part of the cabinet co-chaired by both President Obama and OSTP head with vice president and related ministers as members. The council coordinates president’s policies on science and technology, and subsequent implementation falls on federal agencies with duties related to innovation and technology, like the Pentagon, Ministry of Energy, Central Intelligence Agency, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, etc.

In a word, OSTP is president’s think tank and NSTC is a channel to allocate work and initiatives.

One more thing to note is that the annual remuneration for the Science Advisor to President, a level II government position, is US$183,300 in 2015 according to the US Office of Personnel Management. The amount is just half of the size of the proposed package for the ITB head.

Then we have two questions here.

The first is about the system. Does the person in charge of innovation and technology in Hong Kong need to be a government official?

The second is about cost effectiveness. Since the US government can pay less than US$200,000 to a person to coordinate policy-making, investment and application, why do Hong Kong taxpayers have to pay a much larger amount for a new senior position that may bring no more benefits other than bilateral exchanges with the mainland and reduction in the workload of other bureaus?

It may not be fair to just single out Leung. His predecessors have all done similar things. Tung Chee-hwa initiated a sweeping reshuffle of government hierarchy with his Accountability System.

As for Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, he was relatively modest with his remolding, but he too injected a new bureau, the Development Bureau, and a number of second- to third-tier posts for politically appointed officials.

But, compared to the British rule, have all these reforms over the years led to enhanced governance as expected?

When an incapable yet ambitious person grabs hold of power, he tries to shake up the system with some slipshod additions and arbitrary appointments in a display of his authority, aiming to hoodwink his constituents that he is a visionary reformer.

Unfortunately, the lofty initiatives often get nowhere and the society as a whole will have to foot the bill. But amid all the controversies, the top leader can still claim the reforms as his achievements and legacy before concluding his tenure.

Perhaps this is what is happening in the case of Leung.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 20.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Bilateral exchanges can be better implemented by local universities and other stakeholders like Hong Kong Science & Technology Parks Corp. Photo: Internet

Former full-time member of the Hong Kong Government’s Central Policy Unit, former editor-in-chief of the Hong Kong Economic Journal