Trim our CE’s power

(Next Magazine, 2015/7/2, A002, Second Opinion, Bill Stacey)

Trim our CE’s power

Greece, 2,500 years after its prime, still captures the imagination and is central to debates about the best form of government and what government should do. Lessons from the ancient Greek city-states to Hong Kong are also apt. Those commercial and trading cities were positioned on the edge of empires and needed guile, efficiency and wise leadership to prosper.

Plutarch described a critical period around 600BC in terms that, but for reversing the hills and the plains, could be Hong Kong today: “Athens was torn by recurrent conflict about the constitution. The city was divided into as many parties as there were geographical divisions in its territory. For the party of the people of the hills was most in favour of democracy, that of the people of the plain was most in favor of oligarchy, while the third group, the people of the coast, which preferred a mixed form of constitution somewhat between the other two, formed an obstruction and prevented the other groups from gaining control.

” Many thought the answer was a strong leader, in the language of the time, a “tyrant”. Yet the more enduring solution came from Solon the lawgiver, who provided not arbitrary rule, but law with a new constitution for Athens, extending the franchise, reforming the economy and then leaving for a decade in an attempt to ensure his laws were not changed.Similarly, in Hong Kong, there is enormous attention on who the Chief Executive is and how he or she is chosen, but too little attention is paid to the constitution and the law i.e. the framework that binds all who lead.

Our CE formally holds immense power. Too much power. Far too much power to be effectively exercised. The CE is responsible for everything from the collection of rubbish and the provision of water, to contracts for energy and the details of the education curriculum. He arbitrates in the allocation of scarce land resources and appoints our judiciary. The immense resources of our government’s budget are distributed to the entitled and the favored. All this for a population of over 7 million people. Perhaps a saint might have a chance of doing this well?

Whilst the Basic Law guarantees some rights, all the powers of the government to act are vested in the hands of the CE. However, the mini-constitution provides little guidance about how policy should be developed, responsibilities delegated — and when such powers should be exercised. As it works now, almost all decisions of government ultimately require a call by the CE. There is no separation of policy development and implementation. The legacy structures of government see all the principle officers reporting directly to the CE and competing for his attention.

Whilst the legislature can be an appropriate check, or in the eyes of others, an obstacle for some decisions; the primary hindrance, in practice, to policy moving forward is more often the very narrow funnel of the CE’s attention span. There are few channels for coordination across the civil service apart from the CE personally. This means that issues crossing the arbitrary responsibilities of departments and bureaus are dealt with poorly or inefficiently. Hong Kongers know from experience that both our government’s decisions and implementations have suffered in quality as it expands the scope of its activities.There are avenues for reform, with few needing approval from a higher power. Powers of the CE can be limited by leaving more activity to commerce and the private sector. Within the government, there is an enormous scope for decentralisation by delegating substantive authority to district councils. Separation of policy and strategy functions from implementation would allow for clearer accountability.

This points a way to refocus the debate about governance in Hong Kong. A wise CE would devote his remaining days in office on reforming the role that the CE plays, what power is held, how it is constrained and how exercised. How the CE is elected is an important issue, but only as a part of the effort for better governance.

Bill Stacey