Local administrative reform in Hong Kong : promises and limitations


Lau Siu-kai

TitleLocal administrative reform in Hong Kong : promises and limitations
PublisherSocial Research Center, the Chinese University of Hong Kong
Publication DateNovember, 1981

Local government

Abstract/ Concluding Remarks:

Local administrative reform as an instrument to cope with the burning issues currently plaguing the government and the people of Hong Kong is structurally inadequate. It might serve to alleviate some of the existing woes, but is in no position to eliminate them.


The main dilemmas that torment the government in its reform effort are several, and their partial resolutions have resulted in a reform plan which is timid in its approach, ambiguous in its goals and misplaced in its means. It sets out to improve the efficiency and performance of the administration but comes short of drastically reorganizing it to combat functional fragmentation, departmentalism, overcentralization and an elitist administrative ethos. Partial deconcentration is no panacea for a “bureaucratic sickness” which is deep-rooted and culturally based.


The community participation approach is so devised that whilst it is supposed to promote community organization and involvement, the relative insignificance of community issues and the limited function of the District Boards will have minimal impact on citizen participation. Furthermore, the reform is not favorable to the emergence of an effective intermediary leadership stratum, which will replace the old, decadent one.


Government is not yet ready to radically “democratize” the political system of Hong Kong. Also, democratic participation and decision-making have not yet been the general demand of the people or the battle-cry of strong political groups. Consequently, local administrative reform as presently conceived is somewhat puzzling. Even though there is a persuasive sense of powerlessness among the young and educated, and this feeling is indeed a legitimate cause of concern to the government, some other means than local administrative reform could be more effective in involving them in public policy making. While the local administrative reform does not distinguish between those with high and low needs for participation, it might end up disappointing both groups of people.


In order to cope with the problems which confront Hong Kong today, several points have to be considered. First, some of these problems have to do with the discrepancies between the policy priorities of the government and the people. In other words, acute and real conflicts of interests between the colonial government and the Chinese people are involved, such as the case of land policy. The resolution of these problems will test the will and determination of both the government and the governed, but of utmost importance is the extent to which the government is prepared to go to “sacrifice” some of its interests for the sake of social and political stability.


Second, while recognizing the communication gap between the government and the people as an important factor impairing administrative efficiency and performance, the internal organization of the bureaucracy is also contributing. Steps to “democratize” interpersonal relations, give more emphasis to programme design and evaluation, create more flexible deployment of personnel and resources and subject particular officials (especially those in middle and lower ranks) to public scrutiny and sanction are essential to rectify the situation. Unfortunately, the government has so long been unable to muster sufficient incentive to do this or to overcome the intense internal opposition which such a reorganization will spark off.


Third, in a lowly organized society where material and familial interests reign supreme, any attempt to “mobilize” the people to engage in quasi-executive or self-help programmes will be doomed to fail unless grand-scale efforts on the part of the government are launched. This would however go beyond its capability. In view of an apathetic populace, a resource-scarce government, and great social distance between the two, methods to influence the people so that they identity with the values and goals of the government, and to deliver services more in conformity with their needs, have to abide by several principles: 1) strong initiative on the part of the people should not be deemed a necessity; 2) intense effort to arouse the people should have avoided’ 3) when contact with them people has to be made, it is essential to maximize the scope of coverage, i.e., to maximize the number of people reached per unit of expenditure; 4) the intermediaries between the two parties should be able to win the confidence of the people because of their expertise or specialized knowledge (and not only because of their organizational affiliations); 5) when demands for “private goods” from specific individuals or groups are received, steps should be taken to ensure as far as possible that they be met speedily and directly. This would create a sense of political satisfaction in the people’s mind and generate confidence in the government widen its contact points with the people by means of opinion surveys (to be undertaken continuously), opinion leaders, officials and their representatives who go directly to the people frequently to seek their opinions, “detached” leaders and professionals who are not seen as yes-men by the people, and a flexible administrative structure which can respond to individualistic needs efficiently. In comparison with democratic political procedures, these measures which the government adopts to demonstrate that it cares for the people and is prepared to cater to their needs are of course inferior both as ideal and in practice. Nevertheless, when combined with bureaucratic reorganization and the willingness of the government to reorient its policy priorities to make them more compatible with societal conceptions, these measures should be more effective than local administrative reform which appears to promise very much but in fact delivers very little.


To conclude, when viewed as a dynamic process, local administrative reform as presently conceived represents a good starting point. However, when taken alone, its effectiveness is limited. Not only should administrative reform be carried further, but other steps must also be taken to supplement, if not replace, it. It is certainly possible that local administrative reform will serve as the catalyst for other more radical changes which have yet to come.

NoteIncludes bibliographical references (leaves 36-37)
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