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Published: 00:58, November 01, 2022 | Updated: 10:33, November 01, 2022
Defining specific policy initiatives preferable to having too many goals
By Ho Lok-sang
Published:00:58, November 01, 2022 Updated:10:33, November 01, 2022 By Ho Lok-sang

The chief executive of the special administrative region government, Mr John Lee Ka-chiu, has promised that his government will focus on results. I have lauded this before. But I also pointed out that the single ultimate key performance indicator (KPI) is how well the government serves its people, and warned against using KPIs mechanically and simplistically.

In his maiden Policy Address, Lee made history by adding a list of some 110 “indicators for specific tasks” in an annex. The document includes “key performance indicators (KPIs) for specified tasks to facilitate progress and effectiveness to be tracked and timely improvements to be made”. While listing out some objectives that the government wants to achieve is fine, excessively detailed quantitative goals across a spectrum of policy areas could be counterproductive. I would prefer that the government merely sets out broad policy goals that the community and the entire government can identify with, jointly work out policy initiatives with policy bureaus, or allow policy bureaus to come up with their policy initiatives, and then assess the policy initiatives against key criteria, including costs and benefits. Policies that produce greater costs than benefits need to be revised or even stopped and replaced by alternative policies.

If we compare the policy goals listed in this annex with the goals listed in the Outline Development Plan for the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area, we can see that the latter offers a vision for goals that are rather broad, and that it leaves a lot of room for stakeholders to work out what they can in achieving the vision. Goals like expediting infrastructural connectivity, and building a globally competitive modern industrial system are very broad indeed. In the annex, on the other hand, we have things like: “No less than 70 percent of students who complete the one-year Strive and Rise Programme to achieve improvement in terms of personal development and positive thinking” and “remove at least 75 percent of some 600 environmental hygiene blackspots identified by various departments by end-2023”; “conduct about 500 joint environmental hygiene operations with different stakeholders in public rental housing (PRH) estates under the Hong Kong Housing Authority on a yearly basis”; and “reduce the number of priority rodent blackspots at least by half by end-2023”. Some of these are more specific goals identified under the 110 indicators.

The problem with spelling out quantitative goals is that officials in charge could be motivated to achieve these goals regardless of cost, including external costs on the community. They may not really serve the public interest at all. For example, in the fight against COVID-19, the government had closed all public beaches and many sports and other amenities, at great cost to the community, aggravating mental health problems. Some people, looking at the Outline Development Plan for the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area, might say it is not exactly a plan, but just a list of visions. But if the visions are shared among all the stakeholders, they will work out more-specific work plans on their own. This is far better than top-down instructions on what is to be done, which may produce unintended consequences. In my earlier article, I pointed out that, for example, the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 in the United States led to massive fraud and misuse. What is far better is examining the costs and benefits of policies from time to time and making improvements.

Hong Kong educational authorities introduced Liberal Studies and made it compulsory from 2009. It was supposed to enhance senior secondary students’ social awareness and critical-thinking skills. The government never critically assessed its effects and sought to improve its implementation, notwithstanding problems that had been identified and pointed out by some commentators. After the riotous events in 2019, it was decided that Liberal Studies was at least partly responsible for the massive participation of youngsters in the riots. The subject was replaced by a new course called Citizenship and Social Development. There was no mention of critical thinking. I was disappointed because it is exactly because of the lack of critical thinking that many youngsters were misled into the violent protests and vandalism and even beating up people who disagreed with them.

The SAR government has implemented many education-reform initiatives. But they have rarely been critically assessed for their effectiveness and overall implications. A Tree Management Office was established in 2010, but it had a tiny budget and a small staff. Maintenance work on trees is shared by nine departments, and problems arise because there is a lack of coordination and apparently a lack of initiative to take proactive action to avert disasters. A man in his 60s died on Friday after being hit by a falling tree in Tai Po. The villagers had made complaints to different departments, including the Lands Department, the Home Affairs Department, the Police Force, and the Fire Services Department about possible dangers, but none of the departments had taken action. Seeing the impending danger, the villagers decided to cut down the tree, but it fell and killed one of them.

In general, most policies have both costs and benefits. Specifying quantitative goals while ignoring costs could be counterproductive. Assessing performance of government staff based on narrowly defined KPIs may also be inappropriate. What an official can do is often limited because a policy could be wrong in the first place. In any case, what he or she can do is often limited.

The author is director of the Pan Sutong Shanghai-Hong Kong Economic Policy Research Institute, Lingnan University.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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