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Tuesday, May 02, 2017, 19:17
Officials must reduce bureaucracy if we are to progress
By Eddy Li
Tuesday, May 02, 2017, 19:17 By Eddy Li

Chief Executive-designate Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor was officially appointed as Hong Kong’s next leader by the State Council in Beijing at the end of March. This official appointment has brought a successful end to the CE election. We just have to wait and see how Lam leads Hong Kong into a new era after July 1.

We have high expectations for a new governing style from Lam. She believes the government’s role should change to enhance Hong Kong’s competitiveness — other than being “public service provider” and “regulator”; it’s also significant that the administration could be “facilitator” as well as “promoter”. The roles of facilitator and promoter were so valued that they were mentioned five times in Lam’s manifesto, under the topics of functions and positioning of Hong Kong in the national 13th Five-Year Plan (2016- 20), creating more opportunities for the financial industry in the new economy, innovation and technology development, developing Hong Kong into a capital of international events, and revamping the Central Policy Unit.

The facilitator role, as explained in her manifesto, suggests the government should provide “one-stop-shop” services and consultation to maximize benefits for our society, by coordinating and cooperating across government departments. Promoter means she will conduct “government-to-government” dialogues and engagement with outside entities to strengthen links between Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland as well as foreign countries, to elevate Hong Kong’s status as Asia’s international city, and attract both mainland and international enterprises and talents to set up offices here.

These two roles, from my point of view, are highly necessary. They remind me of a report issued by the Audit Commission, which points out the problems existing in many government departments, including inaction, rigidity and low efficiency — essentially, these are the embodiment of excessive bureaucracy. Some of the civil servants are acting only as regulators, who would never take the initiative to promote government policies nor cooperate with other departments; moreover, they tend to shirk responsibility whenever possible. Take license application for example: Licensing of restaurants or hotels is potentially beset with difficulties as applicants must go through the examination and approval of the Lands Department, Department of Health, Fire Services Department and other related departments. Currently, there isn’t any efficacious mechanism through which these departments can cooperate and act as a whole license-issuing body. As a result the application period is tediously long – sometimes it even takes years to complete.

The bureaucratic work style has further worsened in recent years because of politicization. Some opposition politicians criticized authorities just because they are part of the SAR government, rather than for substantive reasons. This has greatly compromised the efficiency of many departments, for many officials have started to believe that doing less means fewer chances of making mistakes and being the target of criticism. As a result, even many badly needed policies could not be implemented with efficiency.

Another long-standing reason behind the inefficiency of bureaucrats is the frequent accusation of collusion between the government and business circles. Fear of such accusations has led to an over-cautious government, which always hesitates to take action, especially when it comes to policies related to economic development. A case in point is that the owner of a revitalized old industrial building, which is located in the Southern District, who wanted to construct a self-funded connection from the building to a nearby footbridge which links to the MTR station, so as to make it convenient for MTR passengers and others. This short-distance connection, which costs not even a single dollar of public money, seems to be a pretty minor issue and beneficial to the public. But the application took almost three years even after the applicant had repeatedly followed up. Cases like this could be largely blamed on fear of collusion accusations.

Hong Kong is governed by the rule of law; the high transparency of policies and close monitoring by the media also helped ensure the impartiality and incorruptibility of the SAR government. Many of the policies require cooperation between the authorities and the public, so it’s inevitable that the government would have to, under certain circumstances, work with different sectors in society, business circles included. Cooperation is by no means collusion.

The CE-designate has clearly expressed her determination to turn the government into a “facilitator” and “promoter”. I hope such resolution would help our bureaucracy get rid of excessive red tape and get the real work done for the sake of Hong Kong’s economic development.

The author is the president of the Chinese Manufacturers’ Association of Hong Kong.

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