How better regional councils can improve municipal governance

August 28, 2020 08:30
Photo: Reuters

The District Council elections in November 2019 led to some rather surprising results. The non-establishment camp received the majority across 17 out of 18 District Councils. As a result, the elections apparently destroyed the talent ladder and massively drained the public resource pipeline upon which the establishment camp had been greatly dependent.

Although the non-establishment camp won most of the seats in most of the District councils, the District Council as an advisory-cum-consultative organ , only has limited power in public affairs. The administration served the public in its own way. Yet it’s worth noting that governance, in virtue of its nature, always necessitates inter-departmental collaboration in resolving problems and engendering genuinely responsive policymaking.

Apparent need to improve interdepartmental collaboration and communication

Prof. Anthony Cheung, the former Secretary for Transport and Housing, advocated his ideas to tackle 3 constitutional affairs. One of his proposals was to reform District Councils into larger regional councils, such that they operate not only as consulting organs, but are also granted greater mandate and power to govern. Under the status quo of executive-led governance, the administration tends to be the primary agent discharging the government’s duties and responsibility towards the society, which has only left every citizen with a bitter aftertaste and the belief that much is left to be desired.

Take for example the issue of overspilling and clogged storm water drains. We may think that the Drainage Services Department (DSD) is the only government agency that is pertinent here. Yet the over-bureaucratisation of the affair means that the DSD is by no means the only responsible agency - after all, DSD only repairs and cleans up sediments of public sewer and storm drainage systems on a regular basis. If the source of the blocking objective is “on the road”, the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) and the Highways Department must be involved in order to dispense routine rubbish cleansing services. In short, solving one problem would behove 3 departments - with neither genuine cross-departmental efficiency nor real reason for such “compartmentalisation”, the inefficiencies we see today are neither inevitable nor conducive towards effective governance Ideally, officials should delegate such responsibilities (concerning municipal governance) towards the District Councils, such that they - as the “first line of response” in the governance pipeline - could directly tackle these issues, in lieu of protracted back-and-forth amongst government departments.

Returning the Power to Govern to District Councils

If we look at the long history of municipal services in the city, Hong Kong had, at one point, had most of its municipal affairs governed and managed by an entity named the Urban Council. The Urban Council, with its jurisdiction spanning Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, was given financial autonomy in 1972 - which meant the budget could be planned without the approval of the Legislature. The Council's services included: recreational venues and activities, libraries, museums, cultural and entertainment venues, ticketing, wet markets, hawker registration and control, cremation, street cleansing, issuing licenses, and operating abattoirs.

The equivalent body for the New Territories was the Regional Council. The above services were provided by the council's executive arm-the Urban Services Department - until 1999. The government announced the reformation of municipal services, commonly known as the abolishment of urban council. Despite the promise by the Government on power return to the District Council, in fact the power was taken up by newly created government departments.

The more power in the hands of the region councils, the better the quality municipal services

The abolition of the Urban Council precipitated the poor governance in municipal services, and effectively destroyed the talent ladders of all camps in Hong Kong. “Successfully advocated (成功爭取)” - the well-known, almost memeable slogan by all politician - is a damning indictment of the lack of creativity and proactivity on the part of elected legislators: that even “successes” as petty as the installation of a traffic light are touted with much fanfare, suggests that elected lawmakers lack both the initiative and resolve to enact thorough changes on the ground. Reforming the District Council and related government departments is thus instrumental in ensuring better governance.

Reorganizing the 18 District Councils to 5 Regional Councils, Members of the Council could reorganise the community development and municipal services in the bigger picture. At the same time, the Leisure and Cultural Services Department(LCSD), Home Affairs Department(HAD) and FEHD should be broken down into 5 Urban Services Departments under the leadership of the Council.

There are opinions that the former Urban Council and Urban Service Department had too much power, such that it undermined the efficacy of the executive-led administration. Here, I suggest that the chief official of the Urban Services Department should be incorporated into the cabinet as an appointed official: this would be pivotal in regaining the trust of the Hong Kong people.

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BEd (Chinese History) at EdUHK