Facebook activists force policymakers to play catch-up
2010-03-14 EDT12 | EDT | By Gary Cheung
South China Morning Post

Internet-savvy pressure groups are rewriting the rules on public engagement, Gary Cheung finds

The lingering protest over the funding for the express rail link between Hong Kong and Guangzhou has cast doubts on the effectiveness of the government's conventional channels to canvass public views. Officials who were adamant that the proposed project had gone through the normal channels of public consultation were caught off guard when hundreds of twenty-something activists used social networking site Facebook to organise protests against the HK$66.9 billion funding application.

Although the government won a Pyrrhic victory over the funding, how to better engage with the internet-savvy young generation in the future has emerged as one of the thorniest issues for the administration. In the past, officials got their jobs done by submitting papers to the Legislative Council, meeting professional bodies, hosting town hall meetings or attending radio phone-in programmes to canvass public views when they introduced policy initiatives. But the express rail link saga has proved this model is inadequate in the Web 2.0 age.

In the wake of the public outcry over the demolition of the Star Ferry clock tower in 2006, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's administration recognised that conventional consultative channels were no longer able to cope with the emergence of young activists who pursue post-material values such as heritage preservation. But there has been no tangible progress in enhancing the public's engagement on various policy issues in the ensuing years despite the government's pledge to do so.

The protests over the express rail link serves as the latest wake-up call for the government to step up engagement with the public through the internet and shake off the perception that it is disconnected with the people it serves. The term "e-engagement" has become a catchphrase among senior officials in recent days.

An official said the government recognised the need for early and better engagement with the public. "We also support better use of the internet in canvassing views on policy issues. The chief executive also attaches great importance to e-engagement," the official said.

Senior officials had taken part in several internal briefings at which they shared thoughts on how to better engage with the public via Web tools.

"But we should not underestimate the difficulties of engaging the public in busy societies such as Hong Kong, such as how to attract public attention to the Web forums hosted by the government," the official said.

While the administration is gearing up for e-engagement, another battle between the government and young activists is looming. The government's plan to demolish the Tsim Sha Tsui Star Ferry bus terminus and turn the space into a piazza has met strong resistance from a group of activists called Our Bus Terminal Group. They say the terminus, which has been there since the 1920s, is part of the city's collective memory and they have sought to make it a Unesco-listed site.

The issue is likely to be picked up by activists who organised the protest against the express rail link. Coincidentally, Tourism Commissioner Philip Yung Wai-hung, who handled the high-speed rail project when he was deputy secretary for transport and housing, is in charge of the piazza proposal. The heat will be turned up in a few weeks' time when the government announces the result of a design competition for the piazza.

Secretary for Transport and Housing Eva Cheng made the first attempt to engage with the public through the internet on February 6, when she joined a Web forum during which she responded to several questions posed on Facebook, among some 2,000 messages written there. The Facebook account was open from 9am to midday, a period that overlapped with a one-hour forum to discuss public engagement in transport infrastructure projects. The forum was webcast live on the government's website.

Cheng's attempt to reach out to internet-savvy young people, however, drew more fire than praise from respondents, with many criticising the communication channel as one-way. Her account had the rather bureaucratic name "Transport Branch ThB" and no official engaged in one-on-one dialogue with Web users.

But Undersecretary for Financial Services and the Treasury Julia Leung Fung-yee's experience of taking part in another Web forum proved to be a relative success.

On March 2, Leung joined about 200 internet users in an online forum hosted by the website of the Hong Kong Economic Journal to discuss the government proposal to set up a financial dispute resolution centre. The proposed centre would handle investor claims of up to HK$500,000 against banks, brokers and asset management companies.

The proposal, which comes in the wake of the fiasco over Lehman Brothers minibonds, is intended to give investors an alternative to filing a lawsuit.

Nearly 200 questions were posed on the forum and Leung answered dozens of them. The forum was originally scheduled to last for one hour but Leung stayed for another hour because of the enthusiastic responses from Web users, including former secretary for civil service Joseph Wong Wing-ping.

Leung's willingness to answer questions in an interactive manner won praise from some of those participating in the forum.

"The Web users who took part in that online discussion were rational and courteous. I can reach out to people in a Web forum who I would not be able to reach in conventional channels like radio phone-in programmes and town hall meetings," Leung said.

"Before joining the discussion, I was a bit worried that some Web users may distract the focus of the discussion to other irrelevant topics. But 95 per cent of questions and comments posted during the session were about the proposal put forward in the consultation paper."

Leung, who is a former journalist, agreed it was quite challenging to join online discussions with Web users as she had to give quick answers to questions posted on the website.

She said forums that attracted regular Web users with knowledge or interests in relevant fields provided better platforms for in-depth engagement with the public.

"I am happy to join other Web forums in future as it is part of my job to engage with the public," she said.

US President Barack Obama's readiness for e-engagement could stand as an example for Hong Kong officials who are pondering how to engage with the public via the internet.

On February 1, Obama took some of the questions on the minds of Americans on his state of the union address via YouTube. The 12,000 questions were submitted and voted on in a process open to the public, conducted through YouTube. The shortlisted questions were read out by the YouTube host during the interview.

Obama, who successfully mobilised support for his presidential campaign in 2008 via Facebook, did not know which questions would be asked until he heard them during the interview. Shortlisted questions included whether those American citizens who were not covered by medical insurance would be able to get the insurance this year. The selected questions covered wide-ranging issues such as Sudan, university affordability, clean energy and the environment.

The president was confronted with provocative questions such as, "How do you expect the people of this country to trust you when you have repeatedly broken promises that were made on the campaign trail?" and "How are you going to help small businesses back on their feet?"

There were also Obama's sympathisers, including one who asked, "How do you still want to do a good job when there are so many haters out there?"

Lo Chi-kin, a public affairs consultant, agreed that e-engagement was becoming an irreversible trend, but it was no substitute for face-to-face dialogue with members of public.

"E-engagement must be conducted in an interactive manner. It's no good for Web users to post their views on a forum but only get replies a week later," he said.

But what Hong Kong officials needed was a shift in their mindset. Most senior officials were inclined not to engage with the public until the relevant policy bureaus were seeking Legco's approval for their initiatives.

"Perhaps {hellip} officials should initiate public discussion before an issue becomes a hot topic. But some officials may feel uncomfortable to do so as the move may incur unpredictable risks," Lo said.


(上次更新: 2010-03-27)

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