Monday, April 24, 2006

Transparency and Accountability

Michael Chugani, the editor-in-chief of ATV English News and Current Affairs recently decried the “new culture of Hong Kong which has in its dictionary buzzwords like 'transparency' and 'accountability'.”

Come again? Aren't transparency and accountability desirable things in a civilized society? What are these 'buzzwords' Michael Chugani is talking about?

Mr. Chugani was referring to the recent drama enacted at the Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation (KCRC) where chief executive officer Samuel Lai Man-hay and general manager Michael Lai Kai-hin for years managed to outmaneuver (nonexecutive) chairman Michael Tien Puk-sun effectively keeping him in the dark about operations and problems at the railroad (little things, uh, like structural cracks in the chassis of passenger cars). Smart and successful (he founded the U2 and G2000 clothing lines, and is the younger brother of legislator James Tien Pei Chun) Michael Tien engaged in a little of his own high drama to get the railroad's management back on track, tendering his resignation to Hong Kong chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, citing the sabotage to his campaign for accountability and transparency at the railroad by entrenched bureaucrats. Certainly Michael Tien's relationship with brother James (who is chairman of the pro-business and pro-Beijing Liberal Party) couldn't have hurt his cause. But his greatest stroke of genius was to blame the bureaucrats. The public, press and politicions came over immediately to Michael's side, pointing fingers at the KCRC's management, who didn't do their own cause any good with a press conference the following day staking out their own political turf. The South China Morning Post ran the page 1 picture of these 'appaling old waxworks' (to borrow a phrase from Prince Charles, though he's hardly one to talk) further inflaming public opinion against them.

Fast forward one week, and Samuel Lai has 'resigned', Michael Tien is in control and KCRC's board has decided to take action against the 20 senior managers who had held a press conference (the ones in SCMP's page 1 picture)in support of Mr Lai. The government apparently anticipated Mr Lai's departure and had already come up with his successor, James Blake (that didn't work out quite the way they planned, did it).

It's clear that public opinion was always on Michael Tien's side, no matter what the merits of his position were. And why wouldn't it be; Tien chose an easy target. Hong Kong is largely fed up (not that it is alone amongst countries) with what appears to be an overstaffed, effete, generously paid and under-worked civil service corps. Bureaucrats are regularly viewed with suspicion – even if the trains run on time, the lights stay on, and numerous other government jobs are completed expeditiously and efficiently (which they are in Hong Kong).

Why the suspicion? Well, it's usually that because when there is a mistake, there is a widespread instinct among the bureaucrats to run, hide and point a finger at someone else. In between these crises, Hong Kong's bureacrats engage in non-stop lobbying to make sure that decision processes are kept secret (i.e., not transparent) and that blame is difficult to affix and problems are hard to resolve (i.e., not accountable). The only solution left to the government is to hire new bureaucrats in response to a crises, which further bloats the bureacracy.

Most recently, for example, records of 20000 police complainants (which should be of utmost secrecy given the danger in which these individuals could find themselves with the release of this data) were found posted to the Internet, a mistake that to this date, no government department has either taken responsibility for, or for that matter even raised a finger to make sure it doesn't happen in the future. Mistakes like the release of 20000 sensitive personal records to the Internet hold the potential to undo whatever goodwill the government has created. Follow up that appears to be nothing more than obfuscation and fingerpointing only makes it worse. There have already been incidents resulting from the leak. Activist Lau Shan-ching receiving threatening mail and legislator Leung Kwok-hung receiving obscene and abusive SMS messages citing their complaints and personal information. Mr Lau is demanding $400,000 in damages from the government, with any successful claims being settled ultimately by we the taxpayers.

Sin Chung Kai, our Legco representative for the Information Technology functional constituency, should have responded forcefully to this breach of security. Instead he was making the lecture circuit for the month following this security breach, with the message that Hong Kong's IT security was admirable, and that our real problem is spam (unsolicited emails, presumably from places outside of Hong Kong). This certainly sends a strong signal that Mr. Sin is concerned about little more than covering his own posterior. True to form, he has 'run' from his office (where he might need to actually work on upgrading Hong Kong's information security) and 'hidden' on the lecture circuit, where he has taken every opportunity to 'point his finger' at those nasty foreign spammers preying on Hong Kong.

Why are the bureaucrats such an easy target? Because by thwarting transparency and accountability, they make it impossible to ever get passed a crisis; resentment simmers without end. The traditional method of gaining closure on a crisis is to find a scapegoat and sacrifice. Donald Tsang knows this, and he chose to let Samuel Lai fall on his sword. My prejudice is to believe that Samuel Lai was probably a dedicated and capable civil servant, and very likely was not directly responsible for the spate of recent problems endured by the KCRC. But by opposing Michael Tien's push towards modern governance, accountability and transparency, he sealed his own fate.

That, in my opinion, is why transparency and accountability are far more than buzzwords. They are an essential component of any serious management culture. Modern business and government requires the added information that only a culture of transparency and accountability can provide. To oppose the emergence of such a culture is reactionary, and can do little more than seed suspicion, mistrust and personal dishonesty.


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