PICO WEEKO III: PICO: The messenger is the message

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(Also, see the 1st and 2nd installment in our PICO WEEKO Series: PICO WEEKO I – Carrie Lam’s new policy braintrust and PICO WEEKO II: Priorities and Politics in PICO Policy.)

Fresh faces! Not

While Chief Executive Carrie Lam keeps insisting that she is working to bring a new style of governance to Hong Kong , there are some doubts as to whether reality matches the rhetoric.

Mrs Lam’s new policy think tank, the Policy Innovation and Coordination Office (PICO) is a case in point. PICO replaces the old Central Policy Unit with stated aim of generating more inclusivity in policy generation, but its membership and leadership suggest business as usual. The new think tank is chaired by Mrs Lam’s close associates and allies.

Meet the new boss

Launched on April 1, PICO is now headed by Betty Fung Ching Suk-yee, a senior civil servant said to be much trusted by Mrs Lam.

Although earlier the government had stressed that the head of PICO could be a non-civil servant, Mrs. Lam eventually opted for a senior civil servant who has experience with government work and policy coordination.

Ms Fung has been serving in government since 1986. Her last role was Permanent Secretary for Home Affairs. She worked closely with Mrs Lam on the controversial Hong Kong Palace Museum project, which critics say was passed without requisite public consultation.

But more known to the public is a scandal in 2016, in which she was accused of conflict of interest in a property exchange deal. She paid Wiseson Limited around $3 million less than the market price to swap her Mid-Levels home for two properties in Happy Valley. Wiseson is a company owned by Cheyenne Chan, a relative of casino tycoon Stanley Ho.

Ms Fung’s role as the head of PICO is to provide support to the Chief Executive’s Council of Advisers on Innovation and Strategic Development, and to help prepare the CE’s Policy Address.

Then down one…

She is currently supported by two deputy heads, Laurie Lo Chi-hong and Donald Chen Yee. The third deputy head has not yet been appointed.

Like Ms Fung, both Ms Lo and Mr Chen are civil servants. Ms Lo is an Administrative Officer who has served at the Home Affairs, and Mr Chen was the Deputy Secretary for Labour and Welfare.

“The PICO is headed by veteran civil servants who perhaps know more about bureaucracy than innovation,” Johnson Yeung, a youth activist and fellow at the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict, tells Harbour Times.

“Especially Ms Fung, who is a close companion of Mrs Lam. How innovative can PICO be? Also, the projects are overseen by these civil servants at the top, rather than academics or policymakers. I doubt what impact PICO can make,” says Mr Yeung.

The underrepresented

Another body that critics are looking at is the CE’s Council of Advisers on Innovation and Strategic Development, to which PICO provides support. Some members have ties to business tycoons or pro-Beijing groups.

Included in the council are Li Ka-shing’s son Victor Li Tzar-kuoi and a relative, John Chai Yat-chiu, as well as Lau Ming-wai, son of tycoon Joseph Lau Luen-hung. Also on the council are Jonathan Choi Koon-shum from the Chinese General Chamber of Commerce, and Henry Fan Hung-ling, brother of Fanny Law who has taken many public service positions.

Another concern is the lack of women on these bodies, says Mr Yeung.

“When you look at the list, you don’t see a lot of women,” says Mr Yeung. “One major voice in society is not represented in this council.”

Meanwhile, veteran Hong Kong journalist and editor in Hong Kong Chris Yeung says the problem of recruiting talent may not lie in the system.

“Hong Kong is full of talent and expertise in the private sector. There has been a long-established network and mechanism to absorb them into the government. The government should better find out why that has not been working well – and how the new office can help and in what way. The original Central Policy Unit had a long-established system of full and part-time members, including young people,” Mr Yeung tells Harbour Times.

“Again, the government did not seem to know why it had not worked. Is it the system or the leadership?”

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