Reading Political News : Using legitimacy perspective to analyze an opinion poll result of Under Secretaries and Political Assistants

  More than a year of the implementation of a further development on the political accountability system in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government (HKSARG), two strata of politically-accountable Under Secretaries and Political Assistants (US&PAs) have descended below a class of principal officials in the policy bureaux. The Public Opinion Programme at the University of Hong Kong (HKUPOP) continuously tallied very low popularity ratings of people’s most familiar 17 new faces of under secretaries and political assistants. The latest polling result also seeped into a meeting in the Legislative Council (LegCo) and became another piece of political news while Audrey Eu, a Civic Party Legislator, questioned the performance of new political appointees. The Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau (CMAB) responded to Eu’s enquiry by quantitatively summarizing the duties done by the US&PAs. This article aims at constructing a critical socio-communication discourse on the recent debate about the adjudication of 17 US&PAs’ performance in the legitimacy perspective. This string of political news offered a valuable lesson that calls for the enhancement of media literacy and the plying of critical thinking by citizens as well as deriving implications for journalists and pollsters.

Different Interpretations
  HKUPOP released the latest telephone survey result on 14 April 2009. It showed that a quarter (2 out of 8) of the Under Secretaries and one third (3 out of 9) of the Political Assistants received zero public recognition and none of these 17 US&PAs tallied a recognition rate up to 2%. HKUPOP noted that “the results may not necessarily indicate people’s support of these officials”. Many local newspapers like Oriental Daily and Ta Kung Pao did not inform the public this note that can facilitate readers to accurately interpret the survey result. In another development, the interpretation of this survey result by legislators made a significant difference from HKUPOP’s note. According to a news report from the Oriental Daily on 21 May 2009, Audrey Eu interpreted the result of very low people’s familiarity ratings of US&PAs as “underperformance”, some other legislators also doubted that US&PAs have not been held accountable to the general public.

  Before all, the relationship between US&PAs performance and their people’s familiarity ratings requires a clarification. The low familiarity ratings of these US&PAs do not necessarily imply their political performance is unsatisfactory as HKUPOP stated that it has nothing to do with people’s support. Their performance legitimacy may be subject to three extraneous factors including 1. Fractional period, 2. Job nature, and 3. Media prominence of US&PAs. These factors can affect their performance-related social visibility, together with a deep-seated procedural legitimacy problem. Both procedural and performance legitimacies are vital in establishing a base for amassing public recognition and support. Thus, whether a new political appointee performs satisfactorily in public office can hardly be reflected upon the people’s familiarity ratings.

Performance Legitimacies
  According to Samuel Huntington, legitimacy consists of two aspects – Procedural Legitimacy and Performance Legitimacy. The procedural legitimacy of western democracies is built upon an election. In the case of HKSAR after 1997, the procedural legitimacy is minimally-existent because the Chief Executive (CE) is selected by the 800-Members Chief Executive Election Committee. Hence, the CE’s procedural legitimacy is not yet buttressed by the universal suffrage, resulting in weak procedural legitimacy. The problem arising from procedural legitimacy also trickled down to the new political appointees appointed by the CE. The low people’s familiarity ratings of US&PAs are due to the lack of public endorsement through elections. Therefore, the public conferment of procedural legitimacy through democratization can penetrate from the CE to the politically-appointees within his/her cabinet. In addition, the very low people’s familiarity ratings for US&PAs may be conducive to following factors that restraints their performance legitimacy through media exposures:

1. Fractional period
  Whoever embark his/her new working journey, it takes a period of time to get to know what the new tasks are about and get into the working environment and organizational culture so that he/she can turn effort into performance. The period of time used for picking up a new portfolio at the early stage is commonly known as the “Fractional period”. The length of the fractional period varies directly to the complexity of the job portfolio. It is unreasonable and socially-risky to require the US&PAs to hastily make any great leaps forwards for the sake of making boastful performance legitimacy to draw public recognition within this limited working months excluding the fractional period. So, their very low people’s familiarity ratings should not be an anomaly in the first year.

2. Job nature
  Citizens are encouraged to know the responsibilities of US&PAs before justifying whether they have done a good job over a bygone year. The major responsibilities the US&PAs include that the Under Secretaries are subordinate to the Directors of Bureau (DB) and work under the latter’s direction. Specifically, Under Secretaries are responsible mainly for: providing political input to DB in setting policy, objectives and priorities, formulating policy and legislative initiatives, scheduling the roll-out of these policies and legislation, and mapping out overall strategies to secure public support for these initiatives; and coordinating with other bureaux/departments on cross-bureau issues and maintaining contact with LegCo and other stakeholders for fostering rapports and exchanging views. The main duties for Political Assistants are relatively hard to be assessed and visible by citizens and media respectively as their jobs are to line up suitable public and social appointments to assist the DB and Under Secretaries in reaching out to the community; helping out in the networking with various stakeholders and community liaison; and preparing political statements and speeches for their supervisors. On 20 May 2009, CMAB delivered a statistical summary, resembling a report card for the US&PAs. The government’s attempt to release a set of aggregated numbers of public activities seems to create a “productive” image about the performance of all US&PAs. Their social participations depend on a string of extraneous factors that can affect their chances of building up performance legitimacy, for example whether any controversial policies are rolling out that draws public attention and whether the US&PAs have chances to attend public events that can draw public attention either through mass media or real time interactions. It may be erroneous to average the total number of public functions or activities among 17 US&PAs as some newspapers and legislators did as it fails to find out the underperformed staff. A more significant statistical summary that the legislators or mass media should press the CMAB to release in future comes from a breakdown of this aggregated statistical summary. By doing so, the general public can compare the number of participation in public functions and activities by each of these US&PAs and identify the political layabouts. It is journalists’ job to ask for quality information to monitor the government as the Fourth Estate.

3. Media prominence
  In fact, the US&PAs play an auxiliary role to their principal supervisors. Scant public attention has been engendered from the mass media about the US&PAs. This may be conducive to the way how mass media report news. If a same or similar message was delivered by a DB, an Under Secretary and a Political Assistant, the reporters or news editors, as a normal practice, will consider the authoritativeness and prominence of a person and quote his/her words for maximizing the news impact with reference to the hierarchical position in bureaucracy. Their auxiliary role put them on the leeward side of the media exposures to the general public. Hence, the mass media is a factor affecting their familiarity ratings, rather than purely their performance at this early working stage.

Implications for Journalists and Political Communication
  An implication for journalists is to follow the urge of journalistic curiosity (why the government provides an aggregated figure?) and non-satiety (is it meaningful to obtain a breakdown of the aggregated statistics for another piece of interesting news?). Journalists have to pressure the authority to provide quality information that can best illustrate the picture. In the realm of political communication, a longitudinal approach of opinion polling is valuable for monitoring the US&PAs’ performance. However, the People’s familiarity ratings may not be good enough to gauge US&PAs’ performance and public support. The People’s public support ratings can better achieve the target.

■Ernest LEE Ka Shing
MPhil Candidate Faculty of Social Sciences
The University of Hong Kong
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