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Air Of Detachment

CHRISTINE LOH, SCMP – Mar 26, 2009

The government ought to do the work itself. By palming off a review of Hong Kong’s outdated air quality objectives to a consultant, the administration has shown its disconnectedness from a critical task. This is not its intention, of course. Presumably, the government wanted to appear independent, but this was not how it came across last Friday at the “public consultation” organised by the consultant.

About 450 people showed up despite having less than two weeks’ notice of an event that was held during working hours. The timing alone created the impression that the “consultation” was not being taken seriously. The crowd was told the gathering was part of what the consultant was obliged to do under its contract with the government. So, it wasn’t the government, but the consultant, consulting the people. The director of environmental protection was there to start the event, but left early. Lower-ranking officials stayed but it was a team from the consultancy firm that presented its initial recommendations and answered questions from the public.

The consultant is a big international firm, although what appeared strange right from the start, to people familiar with air-quality management, was its local team’s relative inexperience in the subject. The firm had apparently invited a panel of local experts to provide assistance, and numerous meetings were held, but it appears a number of those with science and public-health backgrounds did not agree with the firm’s recommendations.

Is the government an independent party to all that? Of course not. First, upon questioning from the public, it turned out that public health was not the key priority in the consultant’s brief. This was a shock to those who showed up. People naturally thought Hong Kong was finally revising the air quality objectives because current standards have become a licence to pollute and health should be the new driver.

Second, the way the consultant constructed its presentation gave the impression that its recommendation on resetting the objectives was already close to the World Health Organisation guidelines, which are the most authoritative in the world in terms of health protection. The presenter said that some permitted pollutant levels would be set at WHO levels while others would be based on interim targets. What the presenter didn’t say was that there are, in fact, no interim targets under WHO guidelines for some pollutants, and what was at issue was whether the consultant recommended unambitious interim targets.

The consultant also talked about costs related to its cleanup plan but did not release the details of how those costs were calculated. There were benefits, too, but the presentation was focused on costs, presumably to emphasise that clean air doesn’t come free. Not unexpectedly, almost every question from the public had to do with those assumptions on costs and benefits. The information was not released, presumably because the client – the government – did not authorise it. The inevitable happened (in fact, it had already happened the day before, when the consultant appeared before legislators): the government official present had to agree to release the information. This will happen on April 16, when the administration gives it to legislators.

It was no way to organise a public consultation. Without releasing critical information ahead of time, the event was bound to fail. It was not possible to have a meaningful exchange. The consultation was an afterthought. No wonder people went away thinking it was a disaster.

The consultant’s recommended revisions are unlikely to be tough enough to lead to policy changes that will dramatically clean up local pollution – such as at the roadside – in the foreseeable future. The government should have conducted the review instead of shielding itself behind the consultant. Neither the government nor its hired guns can ever appear neutral. The long-standing habit of giving critical policymaking functions to consultants does nothing to strengthen the government’s own capacity.

Christine Loh Kung-wai is chief executive of the think-tank Civic Exchange.

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