Proper execution mechanism should follow gov’t structural reform

February 07, 2022 13:44
Photo: RTHK

At the LegCo earlier, the Chief Executive proposed reviewing the organization of the government, reforming the current structure of 13 policy bureaux managed by 3 secretaries into 15 bureaux. The Transport and Housing Bureau will be split into two separate bureaux and the positions of Deputy Secretaries may be established. It is expected that enhanced governance can strengthen cross-departmental coordination, particularly when multiple large-scale development projects are afoot in Hong Kong, including the Northern Metropolis and Lantau Tomorrow Vision, where various fields are involved, necessitating cross-departmental coordination. Besides refining the leadership level, the execution model is a vital element of equal importance in boosting project efficiency. Local and overseas examples have shown that designated statutory bodies were often set up to oversee large-scale development projects. In the following, three different models of execution will be analyzed to spark public discussion.

An all-encompassing statutory body responsible for policy enactment and project progress

The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) in Singapore is a typical example of an all-encompassing statutory body. In addition to executing large-scale development projects, it is also empowered to enact policies and make decisions with more authority and flexibility. Crowned as one of the URA’s centrepieces, Marina Bay at the town centre is an integrated community serving commercial, residential and recreational purposes. Being Singapore’s national land use planning and conservation authority, not only does URA formulate strategic Master Plans for Marina Bay and the whole country, but it is also responsible for urban design, the sale of state land, development control, conversation and place making.

As shown from the success of Marina Bay, URA is highly consistent in policy enactment and project execution, overcoming silo mentality of various departments and ineffective management. This ensures the balance between economic development, quality of life and environmental protection in the development of Marina Bay.

If this mechanism is applied to Hong Kong, not only will the planning of the Northern Metropolis and Lantau Tomorrow Vision be more comprehensive, but such large-scale development projects can also be more coordinated with the development in the rest of Hong Kong. Nonetheless, introducing this model to Hong Kong requires an overhaul of the functions of various government departments. Therefore, more thorough social discussion is necessary to balance the opinions of different stakeholders.

An execution statutory body specialized in project execution

Compared to an all-encompassing statutory body, an execution statutory body is largely limited to executing large-scale development projects while the policy enacting and decision-making authority remains in the hands of the government. This mechanism was adopted in the Airport Core Programme in the 1990s, successfully delivering the Hong Kong International Airport at Chek Lap Kok.

Chaired by the Chief Secretary for Administration (CS), the Airport Development Steering Committee (ADSCOM) was responsible for monitoring project progress and providing the overall steer on significant issues of policy and resources, as well as solving problems referred by various bureaux. Meanwhile, project management and coordination fell under the purview of the New Airport Projects Co-ordination Office, which submitted weekly reports regarding the latest construction updates to the ADSCOM. The Airport Authority (AA), as the execution statutory body, is in charge of the construction and daily operation of the airport based on commercial principles.

Nevertheless, the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority (WKCDA) is often quoted as a counterexample. With its board being chaired by the CS in the first ten years after establishment and hence a stronger form of control than that over the AA, it should, in theory, lead to better project execution. However, the underwhelming progress of the WKCD has come in for a lot of criticism.

This is not entirely contradictory though, as the crux of the problem lies in the disjointed policy enactment and project execution processes. The AA was established with a clear policy vision, which was to support Hong Kong’s long-term economic development through the new airport. On the contrary, although the WKCDA focuses on developing a cultural district, the Home Affairs Bureau is responsible for enacting cultural policies. The disconnect between policy formulation and project execution meant that the software and hardware are not always in sync, to the extent of competing for the same resources, making it hard for the public to comprehend the fundamental policy vision. Coupled with the controversies faced by the WKCD in earlier years, the WKCDA faces an uphill climb to execute the project.

A multi-disciplinary government department to monitor the progress

The final model is a multi-disciplinary government department, in which the government undertakes policy enactment, decision-making and project execution on its own. Although this is not a statutory body per se, as the closest government setup with common features of a statutory body, it is worth our consideration.

During the past development of new towns, the Territory Development Department (TDD) was formed with a designated office for each new town to handle all relevant executive procedures. In contrast, duties are currently decentralized without a concrete timetable or performance targets. Silo mentality and buck-passing are inevitable without a coordinating department to monitor the progress. With the multitude of large-scale development projects in the pipeline, a designated task force should be established for each project to quantify progress targets and enjoin execution units to meet the targets by strictly following the stipulated timetable.

The multi-disciplinary Sustainable Lantau Office (SLO) was set up in 2017 for the operation and management of development projects in Lantau (Lantau Tomorrow Vision included). However, it is merely a department under the Civil Engineering and Development Department and its authority is thus incomparable to the TDD, which was directly under the Environment, Transport and Works Bureau back then. The SLO is also inadequate for ensuring cross-departmental coordination. Hence, the government can consider upgrading the SLO for more effective cross-departmental coordination.

Ultimately, there is no perfect solution in all three execution models, but a common theme highlighted in these examples is that there should be consistency and alignment in policy enactment and project execution. As long as the government can set a clear policy vision and garner public support, the progress of large-scale development projects can in all likelihood be enhanced to foster Hong Kong’s socio-economic development.

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Ryan Ip Man-ki is Head of Land and Housing Research, and Jason Leung Yeuk Ho is Researcher at Our Hong Kong Foundation.