PICO WEEKO – Carrie Lam’s new policy braintrust

Harbour Times takes a closer look at Carrie Lam’s new policy advisory structure in a three part series.


What is PICO? Why PICO?

‘Innovation’ appears to be the new Hong Kong government’s keystone philosophy, and Chief Executive has gathered her strategists under one roof. And she calls it PICO.

Not to be confused with the venerable SGX-listed events supply company inhabiting PICO Tower down the road from government headquarters, PICO is a completely new body. The acronym stands for Policy Innovation and Coordination Office.

PICO emerged out of a reform of the Central Policy Unit (CPU) as Mrs. Lam promised to do in her Policy Address of 2017. The move is widely seen as an effort to address the “youthquake” shaking Hong Kong in recent years.

Launched on April 1, this new government think tank will work on policy research and innovation as well as coordination across bureaus and departments for policies selected by senior officials.

PICO’s function is broadly the same as its predecessor, which advised the Chief Executive. However, the CPU lost relevance and impact during a time when think tanks arrived on the Hong Kong scene and the CPU was seen as a rubber-stamp unit that lacked transparency. The unit was set up in 1989 to draw on experts outside of the government to advise on major policy issues.

PICO will have a different structure and includes young people on extraordinary salaries.

PICO recruited 20 to 30 young people aged between 18 and 35, paying them up to $95,000 per month (the median income for 25-34 year olds in Hong Kong is $17,600) .

The body says it will adopt a “mixed team” approach. Civil servants who are familiar with how the government works will be collaborating with young political newcomers who provide alternative thinking and innovative ideas.

“The name of the office suggests the CE found problems in innovative and new policy ideas and a lack of coordination, or weak coordination, in policy-making,” Chris Yeung, a veteran journalist and editor in Hong Kong, tells Harbour Times.

“Overall speaking, the first year of Lam’s administration does not seem to have been better connected with young people. The Lam administration does not have a face that is appealing to young people. It does not have a young face that can represent the Lam government,” says Mr. Yeung.

The voice of the youth

The discontent among the younger generation may be what drove Mrs. Lam to undertake this reform. After the protests in 2014, more young people are taking to the streets and participating in politics, forming political parties and even gaining seats at the LegCo.

Prominent examples include Yau Wai-ching and Sixtus Baggio Leung from localist group Youngspiration, who turned from protestors to legislators in 2016. Yau, then 25, became the youngest legislator in history back then. But both were disqualified quickly after the oath-taking controversy.

Mrs. Lam vowed last year to include the youth’s voice, making the PICO an outlet for them to have a greater say.

“I will take the opportunity to bring in younger members to the team so that the views and suggestions of young people could be taken into consideration at an early stage of policy formulation,” said Mrs. Lam.

“This would also allow an opportunity for young people to gain a deeper understanding of public policies as well as practical experience in their formulation,” she added.

Apart from CY

The revamp of the think tank is also an effort to set Mrs. Lam apart from her predecessor CY Leung.

During Mr. Leung’s tenure, the CPU was accused of cronyism. His close aides Shiu Sin-por and Sophia Kao Ching-chi were named chief advisor and full-time advisor respectively. In particular, Ms. Kao was said to have more power than she should with regards to appointment.

Last year, it emerged that Ms. Kao was in charge of providing recommendations concerning personnel appointments at official advisory bodies. At a LegCo session, James To Kun-sun from Democratic Party criticized the unit as a “mainland-style party personnel appointment department.”

At that time, Mrs. Lam called the CPU an opaque “black box” and said she had no idea what it was working on and pledged to revamp the unit. As soon as her tenure started, both Mr. Shiu and Ms. Kao were ousted from the unit. The PICO is also not involved in appointments at official advisory bodies.

Questionable intention

But how far can PICO serve its purpose is an open question. While Mrs. Lam vows to listen to young people, her administration seems to be doing otherwise. Some claim her verbal commitment to listening to youth concerns is window dressing.

Local current affairs critic John Mok says the think tank was set up to co-opt political forces, often represented by elite groups, into the administration.

“It creates the image that the government is open to different ideas and beliefs, so as to reduce political conflicts,” Mr. Mok says.

“Nowadays, the only bodies that can reflect public opinion are the LegCo and District Council. But Mrs. Lam is ignoring the voice of the lawmakers who were elected directly and working with the pro-establishment group to restrict the power of the LegCo,” he says.

For example, young candidates for LegCo, chosen by the people but ejected by the courts, include in addition to Ms. Yau and Mr. Leung, 23-year-old legislator Nathan Law from Demosistō. None have been invited to sit on PICO.