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HK must learn the science of policymaking

SCMP – 20 April, 2012

Christine Loh says the degree to which evidence and knowledge are tapped by policymakers on the mainland puts us to shame

China has substantially tightened its air quality standards because that is the way to drive improvements. Chinese scientists who advise the central authorities made this clear on Monday during a private briefing in Hong Kong.

Two-thirds of Chinese cities would fail to meet the stricter standards, which are being phased in nationwide over four years. Officials know this, but they see the improved standards as critical.

The public demands cleaner air. To achieve this, decision-makers rely on scientific evidence to help them see when, where and how they need to exert control for the largest gains. Scientists are called on frequently to work with policymakers; senior Chinese officials request expert briefings so they can better grasp essential issues.

Over the past 20 years, Chinese scientists’ improved ability to understand the complex chemical transformation of air pollutants has enabled them to give pointed advice. This process is well-developed in richer regions like Guangdong.

Indeed, Hong Kong’s scientists have worked alongside mainland partners for more than a decade on many leading national projects, including the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and the Guangzhou Asian Games in 2010.

If there is one thing Hong Kong officials can learn from the mainland, it is the importance of science in policymaking. While we have a large group of well-trained scientists at the Environmental Protection Department, the system doesn’t provide meaningful opportunities for them to work directly with senior officials, who are generalist administrative officers.

Moreover, officials seldom deliberate together with non-government experts from different disciplines, including economics and finance, to help them think more broadly about policy options.

The in-coming Leung Chun-ying administration can strengthen its capacity by encouraging political appointees and administrative officers to deliberate on issues with people who have solid expertise. Deliberation is for understanding; decision-making comes later. In between, officials can reach out to stakeholders, general advisers, non-governmental organisations and the public to test ideas.

The Hong Kong public would probably find such a process more effective because it is built around knowledge from a multi-disciplinary perspective. Officials still make the final decisions and are accountable for them. But a knowledge-driven deliberative process would give them the confidence to face legislative and public scrutiny of their policies.

Hong Kong officials must shape up, too, for one other reason – they need to keep up with their mainland counterparts. Increasingly today, both sides interact to co-ordinate on a range of policies. Many senior mainland officials today are well-briefed even about technical details. This means Hong Kong must pitch an equally competent team for cross-boundary dialogue.

The mainland’s speedy tightening of air quality standards came as a shock to local officials. In future, our top officials must know enough to be considered worthy counterparts and win mainland and local respect.

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

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