Hong Kong-based think tank Civic Exchange and Washington, DC-based National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI) jointly released today an in-depth report on the new Principal Officials Accountability System (POAS) in Hong Kong.
The introduction on 1 July 2002 of the POAS brought fundamental change to the system of government in Hong Kong. Indeed, this change is more significant than any systemic political change that occurred upon Hong Kong’s reversion to China. For the first time, Hong Kong now has professional politicians rather than civil servants in top policy-making positions.
Hong Kong’s new crop of principal officials is learning how to govern and they are literally learning on the job. They must learn to devise policies that are appropriate, communicate them to the people in order to win support, and implement them effectively. This is not proving to be easy as the government is still finding it hard to articulate clear policies in many areas.
The system in place does not actually provide for greater accountability to the people or to the legislature. With neither the Chief Executive nor the appointed principal officials subject to popular elections, the executive branch policy-making still lacks a democratic mandate.
Having established the POAS, the government is struggling to define exactly what political “accountability” means. The penny stocks incident indicated that the government sees “accountability” as the responsibility to give an account of what happened in a particular set of circumstances. However, the public is demanding to know under what circumstances officials must take political responsibility for their actions or inactions.
The POAS was designed and imposed quickly, without sufficient input from the legislature, the civil service and the public. The penny stocks incident showed that the resolution used to transfer power to the new principal officials had not been adequately drafted to distinguish the responsibilities of the two top officials with responsibility for financial services. There remain many loose ends to tie up.
The introduction of POAS also brought about a reorganization of the Executive Council – a proto-cabinet, which now includes leaders from two political parties. The inclusion of these parties has laid the foundations for the establishment of Hong Kong’s first ever (de facto) governing coalition within the legislature. This will pose a challenge to other political parties and groups. Those in the coalition may well appear to the electorate to be more effective.
This is expected to push the “opposition” to rethink their strategies in order to secure continuing support.
While the creation and implementation of POAS was systemically and procedurally flawed, the Hong Kong government should not lose the opportunity to draw on models from other ministerial systems and put in place a “best practices” model for the new system. This model should include a ministerial code of conduct.
Despite fundamental shortcomings, the adoption of such a monumental change to the HKSAR’s governance system suggests political dynamism. The introduction of POAS marks Hong Kong’s first substantive departure from the colonial form of government.
The introduction of POAS reveals that systemic political change in Hong Kong is possible. The possibility of such change serves to remind the people of Hong Kong of the potential for achieving greater democracy after the prescribed transition period set out by the Basic Law.
We hope this report will help to generate further discussions about political reform in Hong Kong. There are 9 Chapters to the report:
• “One country, two systems” Framework
• Background to the Introduction of the POAS
• Fundamentals of the POAS
• Accountability – Then and Now
• Evaluating Systems of Executive Government
• Issues Arising from the Implementation of the POAS
• A Best Practice Ministerial Model for Hong Kong