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On a balmy spring day, I was sitting in the fairly well-apportioned office of a prospective
client when the subject of policy advocacy arose.

“Important policies are influenced by Beijing. How can you bring about change here?”

“It must be very difficult for you to build support for your work in Hong Kong,” the company representative said. “After all, so many important policies are influenced by Beijing. How can you bring about change here?”

This struck a nerve. Over the past few years, I have heard this from many Hong Kong stakeholders. I have also heard a litany of other reasons why organisations do not dedicate more resources to local policy advocacy.

Apart from the representative’s inaccurate perception of Hong Kong’s policy landscape, I have been told that advocacy is best when handled by legal professionals. There are also people who believe that chambers of commerce and industry  associations already provide the necessary support or say that advocacy is too expensive to justify the cost. Both claims are problematic.

Delegation, not elevation
First of all, we should not let debates over the mainland’s influence obscure the fact that, in large and populous countries, most policies are made at local levels. It is too resource-costly to adapt national policies to local realities without some delegation.

to official statistics, the mainland administers 31 provinces containing 333 prefecture-level, 2,853 county-level and 40,497 township-level governments. Under this system, Hubei’s decision to develop a “capital of international commercial vehicles” in Shiyan has little relevance for Hunan; and the central government has few reasons to oppose this provincial policy decision, provided it satisfies national priorities.”

As for Hong Kong’s system, with the exception of cases that require cross-border coordination or regional planning, most policy portfolios – environment, food and health, labour and welfare, transportation and housing – typically fly under the mainland’s radar. Intt these policy areas, advocacy targets are primarily local, not regional or national.

Legal eagles not enough
Those who believe that lawyers are the best policy advocates often overlook the importance of communication skills needed for uniting community stakeholders and channelling their feedback. Legal support is often necessary, but rarely sufficient.

Organisations that are unwilling to invest in a solution, whether alone or collectively, have little latitude to question local policy-making.

As for chambers and industry bodies, their influence mainly derives from collective action. Among these bodies, few have the resources to take on individual members’ advocacy projects.

Finally, while concerns over the cost of policy advocacy are understandable, organisations that are unwilling to invest in a solution, whether alone or collectively, have little latitude to question local policy-making.

Investment in advocacy solutions, whether in-house or outsourced, should be higher. At present, recruitment of specialists is limited. On 9 May 2015, a LinkedIn job search with no date restrictions using the keyword ‘public  affairs’ turned up nine hits, of which only two were relevant to policy advocacy. ‘Advocacy’ returned five postings, with one of relevance. ‘Government affairs’ resulted in three, and “government relations” yielded two. All relevant employers were for-profit multinationals, among which most were from financial and professional services.

In contrast to the LinkedIn search results, 30 companies and non-statutory industry/trade bodies responded to a public consultation on a “Proposed Regulatory Regime for Stored Value Facilities and Retail Payment Systems” – the most recent Financial Services and Treasury Bureau consultation exercise for which conclusions have been published. If this many responses to such a specific topic were recorded, surely the total potential demand for policy advocates economy-wide is not insignificant.

You’re missing something
Moreover, local organisations tend to go for only the basic advocacy strategies. Although few studies of Hong Kong advocacy exist, a 2010 HKU Centre for Civil Society and Governance survey of 59 conservation nonprofits did find that, among the 54% of respondents that had conducted advocacy in the previous year, the most popular activity by far was submissions to government (77%), followed by press conferences and petitions (both 43%). Therefore, few respondents in this relatively activist organisation category did more than the bare minimum.

Organisations would enjoy greater success if they enlarged their policy advocacy toolbox.

While basic communication with the government over policy matters is better than none, Hong Kong’s for-profit and not-for-profit organisations would enjoy greater success if they enlarged their policy advocacy toolbox.

This means more resources must be contributed to research on impacts of policy outputs on the society. It suggests greater outreach to and two-way communication with stakeholders who benefit or suffer from those outputs. It indicates a reorientation of messaging priorities away from corporate benefit and towards social benefit. And it involves judicious use of the media to better communicate benefits and/or costs of action to policymakers.

Most importantly, it requires the cultivation of professionals with the proper skillsets. This may not be cheap, but the returns, while not instantaneous, may be more satisfying in the long run.

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Tommy Patterson is an independent Hong Kong-based political analyst, policy researcher and strategic communications consultant.