Sustainable development to guide John Lee’s initiatives

Chief executive candidate John Lee Ka-chiu knows talk is cheap, and he wants to make his mark by delivering results. This is laudable from a practical man.

He commits to set KPIs (key performance indicators) for selected tasks within the first 100 days of his administration, starting on July 1, 2022.

The selected tasks will presumably reflect his stated priorities. His manifesto, published on April 29, includes housing, transportation, infrastructure, innovation and technology (I&T), financial services, and youth advancement.

Lee has also declared a set of core governing principles for improving capabilities, enhancing coordination and execution and solving problems, which in effect acknowledges gaps in governance.

Lee wants every government department to conduct an internal review of its operational methods, administrative processes and relevant legislation to reduce red tape, improve efficiency, and “modernize”. No one could disagree with this.

Hopefully, modernization means more than a smoother bureaucracy. It should include the substance of policies, legislation and processes that are forward-looking and matches the best internationally.

Lee might add that his administration will need to be much better at communication. The frustration is government communication has generally been poor, even when its actions may be right.

Lee specifically highlights the Northern Metropolis in his manifesto. While the concept plan for this large area was proposed by the current administration, it falls on Lee’s shoulders to turn the concept into a concrete plan and lay the foundation for its holistic creation.

The Northern Metropolis presents Lee with a chance to pull together a large development project to deliver on many aspects of his priorities. He needs to crystalize it within the government and communicate it publicly.

After all, Hong Kong is competing with mainland and international cities, and the narratives that its government adopts need to be communicated way beyond its own borders.

Lee can easily adopt “sustainable development” as his driving principle for delivering results in the Northern Metropolis and other projects in Hong Kong. After all, this is a nationally and internationally accepted approach that combines quality socioeconomic-environmental outcomes.

Sustainable development will also fit his desire to strengthen strategic planning, policy research and overall coordination within the bureaucracy because achieving sustainability is strategic in nature.

On top of using sustainability as a driving strategy, Lee can build the internal capability to deal with black-swan surprises and longstanding gray-rhino problems that could no longer be ignored.

Lee’s administration will have to deliver on the existing commitment to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, which is a core development goal. Setting the stage now for Hong Kong to get on an ambitious decarbonization path, and to adapt to climate change generally, will move the needle to make Hong Kong competitive within China, as well as on the global stage.

Lee must make sure his administration upgrades legislation, regulations, codes and standards in many areas. Officials used to say they couldn’t do much because getting things through the legislature was too difficult.

This excuse can’t be used anymore with the new “patriotic” Legislative Council. The reality is, civil servants have to work a lot harder with a legislature that is supportive of government but demands results.

An essential aspect of the challenge is to retune the talent already in government and bring in fresh blood. Government departments are full of professionals with strong training and expertise. They have not always been asked to perform at the cutting edge by their bosses; hence the gap in delivering quality results.

Longstanding criticisms of the civil service include risk aversion in adopting new approaches, being overly timid and bureaucratic, and being disjointed within the administration.

This leads to questions about how civil servants are trained at different stages of their career, and how departments and bureaus are led by their most senior ranks, and how ministers see their role and use their authority.

Governments need to deliver day-to-day services and to think strategically in anticipating challenges and identifying opportunities. What Hong Kong lacks is the latter, and Lee has to establish a structure for it while improving day-to-day performance.

The Chinese mainland has much stronger strategic capabilities Hong Kong can learn from. Singapore, a small city-state, also has strong abilities — thus, the ability is not a function of size.

A case can be made for Lee to find a new way to combine local skills and experience with the mainland and use selected external expertise to establish a local structure within the government to focus on strategy. The chief secretary for administration and financial secretary could be asked to spearhead this exercise.

Government departments and political appointees should rethink how they consult and engage stakeholders. Traditionally, the government wanted supporters of its own ideas, which created dull, defensive echo chambers. Help is available to the government if it knows how to engage.

This is where academics at universities, smart people at think tanks and Hong Kong’s professionals can help by providing fresh perspectives, insights, research, data, and solutions. The government needs to know how to use external talent.

Hong Kong should wish Lee well. We want him to succeed because that is what Hong Kong needs.


This article is written by Christine Loh, chief development strategist, Institute for the Environment, HKUST The article has appeared on CHINA DAILY - 

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