PICO WEEKO II: Priorities and Politics in PICO Policy

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(Also, see the 1st in our PICO WEEKO Series: PICO WEEKO I – Carrie Lam’s new policy braintrust. It focused on its creation, main function and basic composition. Today, we look at the PICO’s plans, what it funds and the concerns it raises. )

Revamping the Central Policy Unit (CPU) that advised the Chief Executive (CE) on major policy issues, CE Carrie Lam wants her new think tank to be a policy and project coordination unit that fosters public participation in policymaking.

With those goals in mind, Mrs. Lam renamed her think tank. the new Policy Innovation and Coordination Office (PICO) is be responsible for policy research and coordination.

The PICO has funding of almost $124 million in 2018-19, of which $30 million is allocated to two public policy research funding schemes the PICO manages.

The two schemes are the Policy Research (PPR) Funding Scheme and the Strategic Public Policy Research (SPPR) Funding Scheme, which provide funding for research on areas such as land and housing, poverty and aging and environmental protection in the context of Hong Kong, or the development of the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Bay Area and Belt and Road Initiative in a regional context.

The first-round results of the PPR Funding Schemes came out in May, with all recipients being university academics focusing on sustainability, while applications for the SPPR Funding Scheme are open from June 8.

The roles of PICO

While the PICO is overseeing the funding schemes that support research, its other stated roles include promoting evidence-based policy research and giving more opportunities for youth to take part in public policy formulation (see Part I).

Another role is coordination. PICO will offer consultation and coordination for innovative projects initiated by non-profit organisations or private sector proponents.

It stresses that it will not take over the role of other policy bureaus and departments, which control assessment, vetting, negotiation and approval processes.

At a LegCo meeting in January, when asked what innovative projects it is looking for and its short-term goals, the PICO failed to give an answer.

“The think tank has been allocated a funding of over $100 million, with six officials of directorate grade heading it. I’m surprised to see such a big institution fail to give a clear direction to what it will do,” Johnson Yeung, an activist and fellow at the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, tells Harbour Times.

Innovation incubator or rubber stamp?

Meanwhile, two of the roles of PICO have raised some eyebrows and questions about whether the think tank will only be a rubber stamp for CE policy.

The PICO says it will provide secretariat support to the CE’s Council of Advisers on Innovation and Strategic Development and coordinate major cross-bureaux policies selected by the CE and the Secretaries of Departments.

In other words, the policies that PICO works on would be hand-picked by the CE and her advisors.

When revamping the think tank, Mrs. Lam said she wanted to provide an outlet for youth to have a bigger say and would welcome young people from all sides on the political spectrum.

“The move is Lam’s effort to have young people endorse her policies, using their voice to make her policy more appealing to the youth. She is not giving power to the youth,” says Chan Kim-ching, a researcher at Liber Research Community that studies urban planning in Hong Kong.

Mr. Yeung expresses a similar concern.

“The projects that received the SPPR funding in the past are all about the Greater Bay Area and the Belt and Road Initiative. There’s a preset position what the government wants you to do research on. It’s about endorsing these plans,” says Mr. Yeung.

Limited impact

Chris Yeung, veteran journalist and editor in Hong Kong, also tells Harbour Times his concerns about the PICO.

“Innovation and coordination are two totally different aspects of policies. Putting both under one office is already a big question mark whether it will work and how it will work. This is a fundamental problem with the new office, which casts a long shadow over its effectiveness in policy innovation and coordination,” says Mr. Yeung.

“The problem of including more young people in the office is another source of confusion. New people will not necessarily come up with innovative ideas. It’s a matter of age, but more mentality and mindset,” says Mr. Yeung.

In an article, Mr. Yeung said the bureaucracy in different government departments will make it hard for the young newcomers to coordinate policies. Joining this huge institution and understanding how it works can already be a challenge for them.

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