Speaking Truth To Power

On 19 October 1812 the French army under Napoleon began its momentous retreat from Moscow, which was to spawn the famous orchestral work by Tchaikovsky.

Some 200 years later, almost to the day, our government has been forced to undertake a similarly humiliating retreat, on the vexed subject of national education, though it seems unlikely anyone is going to memorialise the event with an Overture.

But when we have all finished enjoying the discomforture of our senior officials, we need to take time out to examine a very serious matter that the episode has exposed. "We" in this context includes the whole community, but in particular the Chief Executive and his team of advisers on the Executive Council.

Every policy paper that goes to Exco has a section which attempts to forecast likely public reaction to the proposal being recommended. The immediately following section is a paragraph outlining how the administration intends to "sell" the new plan to the community, if it is endorsed, after taking into account that likely reaction.

In my time in the government, I saw hundreds of public reaction paragraphs. Indeed for a long time it was part of my job to vet that part of all papers before they were put to the Council.

Almost invariably the first draft, which came from the policy bureau responsible for the subject, would predict an enthusiastic public response for even the most humdrum item.

But that draft would then be subjected to close scrutiny by no fewer than three other parties within the administration to ensure the final assessment was as accurate as possible. First, the Information Services Department would dig out past media coverage of the topic and on that basis attempt to forecast how the press would react both in terms of level of interest (indifference, mild interest, hot topic) and stance (mildly supportive, even handed, strongly opposed).

Secondly, the Home Affairs Bureau would draw on feedback from the District Office network to make an assessment of likely reaction from the community at large.

Finally, bearing in mind the input from those two sources but also drawing on his own experience, the Information Coordinator (or equivalent at the time) would give his authoritative advice on how the subject was likely to play out, and the best PR plan for achieving the government’s objectives.

What is so troubling about the national education saga is the fact that the administration seems to have been totally blindsided by the scale and vehemence of the opposition. Somehow, somewhere, the system broke down.

Was it during the consultation phase? Even before the Exco paper is drafted, normal practice would be to consult widely with all affected parties to test the water. Undoubtedly there was a broad scale consultation exercise on national education, but how genuine was it, and how scrupulously were the results tabulated? From what has been made public so far, there are disturbing indications that some negative reactions may have been downplayed.

Knowing that President Hu Jintao was thought to be keen on the subject, did the Education Bureau allow itself to be over optimistic in its first draft of public opinion?

Did the Information Services Department and Home Affairs Bureau simply misread the media and public mood, or were they too influenced by the proposal’s friends in high places? Was the final goalkeeper, the Information Coordinator, distracted to the extent that he took his eye off the ball?

Now we have to be careful here. No administration can be bound to slavishly follow what it perceives public opinion to be. That is not government, it is abdication. The Chief Executive, on the advice of Exco, is perfectly entitled to bring forward proposals he knows will be unpopular if he believes they are in the best long term interests of Hong Kong. But in reaching that decision, or indeed any decision, Members are entitled to have the benefit of the best possible – that means the most scrupulously objective – assessment of public reaction, not some toned down version served up in a bid not to offend.

Unless our Chief Executive finds out what went wrong this time, he runs the risk of repeated knock backs in future.

How different the outcome might have been if just one Marshall had said to the Emperor Bonaparte "Hey boss, I’m not sure it’s a good idea to attack Russia in winter. It gets pretty cold". How different would events here have been, two centuries later, if just one senior official had said "Hey boss, this national education stuff is going to stir up a hornets’ nest. A lot of ordinary people will view it as no more than crude communist propaganda".

In both cases, there is just a lingering suspicion that all concerned were too afraid to speak truth to power.