Heartware, not simply Hardware

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While history will render the ultimate verdict on the social significance of the recent Umbrella Movement, there is an emerging consensus on the need to address the many challenges faced by today’s younger generation. The decision to invest tax dollars on a tailor-made subsidized housing programme is reminiscent of how governments tend to splurge on massive infrastructure development as a universal solution to economic downturns . This almost always leaves unaddressed the many structural issues that produced the social or economic problem in the first place.

There is no question that improved access to housing and homeownership could brighten the prospects of many hardworking young people, but such measures can barely scratch the surface of what appears to be deep -rooted discontent.

Investments on “hardware” cannot obviate the need for genuine and effective communication. More importantly, the Government must know how to tap into the pulse of today’s youth.

 Investments on “hardware” cannot obviate the need for genuine and effective communication

The Umbrella Movement has provided a powerful illustration of the younger generation’s reliance on social media as a means of communication and mobilisation. To properly engage an audience accustomed to instant updates and open discussions, the Government must strengthen the extent and effectiveness of its use of social media.

At present, only 30 of the 80-odd Government departments offer e-Government services through apps, those small application programmes that run on smart-phones and tablets. Despite having spent more than HK$26 million from public coffers to develop and maintain 81 apps over the past two years, the Government can only claim success in a handful of cases, highlighted by the Government Observatory and Radio Hong Kong. The rest are all under-utilized. For instance, only 700 downloads have been recorded for the “Inspiration Sparks HK” app by Create HK.

View counts for YouTube channels are another barometer of effectiveness. The Government currently maintains more than 20 YouTube channels and produces over 100 videos and voice tracks every year for various Announcements of Public Interest. Most have miserably low viewing rates, and practically nobody subscribes to the Transport and Housing Bureau and the Intellectual Property Department channels.

The Government ’s Facebook pages are equally lacklustre. Only 10 to 20 Government departments have dedicated Facebook pages, and only a small number of these pages manage to attract more than a few hundred “Likes” . The Radio Hong Kong and the 2-year old “youth.gov.hk Facebook”, which are among the few successful exceptions, are still far less popular than other youth-focused Facebook pages.

For a communication channel to address its audience effectively, it must offer engaging content–another area where the Government’s efforts have fallen short. On the “youth.gov.hk Facebook”, for instance, one can find postings explaining the origin of the winter solstice or the handing out of hampers. These are hardly topics that concern the average youth, who cannot be faulted for not following the page.

 …the Government must strengthen the extent and effectiveness of its use of social media

Civil servants usually excel in following rules and protocols, an attribute critical to maintaining order in society. Effective communication requires “heart”, which manifests itself through the patience to listen. A case in point is the Government’s “1823 Online Complaint Channel” app. As I understand it, the app is originally intended and designed to share complaint cases and to encourage interactions among the public. The idea was dropped due to resistance from Government departments, which consider such open exchanges “difficult to manage”.

In contrast, the British government has put in place an “e-petition” mechanism whereby an issue would be put up for debate in the House of Commons when more than 100,000 citizens sign ed a petition. Across the Atlantic, 69 federal agencies under the United States Government run various scientific, ideation, and creative competitions through the “Challenge.gov” platform as a way to solicit innovative solutions from the public to solve mission-centric problems. Closer to home and in time, a key initiative in Ko Wen-je’s successful bid to become the mayor of Taipei involved engaging voters by setting up the fixTPE website to collect public comments on unsatisfactory municipal services.

There is no question that investments on “hardware”, whether in the form of physical infrastructure or incentive schemes, are needed to improve the well-being of the younger generation.

However, the Government urgently needs to focus on building “heartware” as the infrastructure and software of civic engagement, not only to listen to the plight of the target audience, but also to demonstrate its commitment to connecting with them through their preferred channels. Nowadays, web-based Group Decision Systems are very advanced. The Government better act fast; or else when the impatient young people gather to vote on controversial issues by “universal suffrage”, using these platforms, it will find itself in a very awkward situation. As Marshall McLuhan, a pioneer in the field of media theory, would say: “The medium is the message.”

Let us hope it is not too late for the message to be delivered and heard. Our prosperity as a community depends on it.

Francis Neoton Cheung

Convenor, Doctoral Exchange