Tuesday, October 31, 2006

IPCC incident 4

I hope the IPCC saga would come to an end after the Privacy Commissioner issued his investigation report. However, the report is quite disappointing. It may be said that the Commissioner focused his attention to data privacy issue instead of IT security issue. But in this particular case, IT security issue was at stake. The report did not show that sufficient effort was spent during the investigation in this respect.

The event that was technologically related was the security of the server holding the data. The report took for granted the explanation of the webmaster of the internet service provider that the data was uploaded to a folder which was accessible to the public. I think even friends using the free web services such as Yahoo would know the distinction between such private/public folders. Anything uploaded to a Yahoo account is protected by user name and password, and remains private unless the user specifies it otherwise. Materials uploaded to a personal website are normally open for public access. The IT professional staff engaged in the case must know this simple administration rule. He should be using such service on a regular basis and know the way to keep the data private. Even test data containing the database structure must be kept confidential. Otherwise, it would be a grave professional negligence. On the other hand, there could be a system flaw on the server leading to private folders being exposed. This line of investigation was not pursued.

Other issues are common sense which are not IT related. First, whether the IT staff is employed by the contractor or is sub-contracted was not an issue. The IT staff represents the contractor in this case, no matter what is their relationship. The contractor has precarious responsibility on the outcome. Second, whether there was a specific clause on data security is also not an issue. Under contract, the contractor would be responsible for any damages arising from his negligence. Third, the fact that confidential data was released by the IPCC staff to the contractor was not the result of lack of IT training. It is common sense that one would not let unauthorized persons see a confidential pink file. On the other hand, contractor of an IT system could be considered being authorized to access data of the system.

Given the high profile of the case, it is no wonder that the Privacy Commissioner considered that there was a breach to the Data Protection Principles. However, the case has a surprising ending that it was the Privacy Commissioner Roderick Woo and IPCC Chairman Ronny Wong who put up a final show of crossing swords. I call it a shame seeing the Commissioner and the Chairman defending themselves and denying responsibility in front of the television camera. The press called it the clash of the legal profession, given their previous disagreement on other issues.

It calls up another general issue: what are the role and responsibilities of the un-official members of government boards and committees? As Ronny Wong boldly said, un-official members are doing volunteer work; they should not be held responsible for administrative matters which are handled by civil servants. However, isn't the work of IPCC done by civil servants in the first instance. The secretariat of all boards, committees, councils are part and parcel of the institutions, or I may say so, the body of the institutions. The un-official members can call themselves the soul or otherwise. But it definitely has a responsibility, be it precarious responsibility. Afterall, being an un-official member has all its benefits, first in fame, and then in fortune (in kind may be). At least the title looks good in name cards and CVs.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Education voucher system

The Chief Executive announced in his 2006 Policy Address that:
"We will provide fee assistance to parents of children aged three to six in the form of an “education voucher”... Starting from the 2007-08 school year, we will provide, in the form of vouchers to parents, an annual subsidy of up to $13,000 per student, of which at least $10,000 must be used on fee subsidy, with the remaining money spent on teacher training... By the 2011-12 school year, the annual subsidy per student will be $16,000 and will be used entirely for fee subsidy. Any local non-profit-making kindergartens that charge fees not more than $24,000 per student per annum will be eligible to redeem the “education voucher” according to their student intake. To assist parents to choose a kindergarten, all participating kindergartens will be required to provide information on their facilities and achievements, including the academic qualifications of the principals and teachers, the number of teachers and students, special features of their curriculum, and teaching arrangements. To assure teaching quality, they will also be subject to classroom inspection."

There have been much discussions on the proposed education voucher system lately. However, I think most of them are politically motivated and miss the point completely. The LegCo Secretariat has conducted a research on education voucher system in 2002. We can still read the research paper in the LegCo website.

The education voucher system was the brainchild of Milton Friedman, whose goal was the improvement of the quality of education through market forces. He predicted that education vouchers would drive schools to respond to the needs and preferences of students with a view to improving student enrollment. Furthermore, parents would be free to choose among schools which best meet their needs. However, the implementation of this theory was not successful in many countries.

The underlying principle of Friedman's theory is the introduction of market force into education. This is a very fundamental change to education, whose purpose is to educate, rather than the pursue of a business. Education was a lucrative business in the past, and only rich and important families could afford it. The quality demanded from teachers were very high. Nowadays, education is human right protected by Article 28 of the International Convention on the Rights of the Child. Education is now available to everyone, and as a result, it is a losing business mostly paid for or subsidized by the government, except for a few prestigious education institutions.

In Hong Kong, we have nine years free and compulsory education from primary to junior secondary schools. To achieve a higher level of human rights protection, the society always demands more. Senior secondary schools, post-secondary schools and universities are heavily subsidized with public funds... except nurseries and kindergartens. So it is worthy of applause when the government extends public fund subsidy to early childhood education.

The question is: why education voucher? To cater for nine years free education, the government has adopted the model of government-run or aided schools. Government provides the accommodation and pays all the expenses. For aided schools, the administration of the schools is given to school sponsoring bodies. These bodies are religious institutions, charitable institutions and many non-profit making social service institutions. They operate the school for the sake of education and at the same time for their own specific purposes, all at the expense of tax payers.

It is an interesting question why the government does not choose the age old model of subsidy to schools, but the new education voucher system which are not successful in many countries. The simple fact is that the education voucher system is the dream of the resource and system managers, not the educators. It occurs when one looks at education from the resource angle and wonders how best to use the money. The aided school system is notorious for the uncontrollable school sponsoring bodies who want to run the schools in their own way. Very often, this is contradictory to what the government wants, which are controlled curriculum, filled-up classes, a top-down education policy. The situation is aggravated by the decrease in student population in recent years, leading to unfilled places in primary as well as secondary schools. There are also sub-standard schools which the government can do very little to correct. All these schools are still receiving the same subsidy according to the staff establishment and the number of classes. This is not acceptable to education administrators, many of them are not educators. To make the money worth, there should a better way of resource allocation. An alternative to the present system of school aid is to change the method of allocation from school-based to student-based. Instead of subsidizing a school according to its infrastructure and staff establishment, the subsidy could vary with the size of output, i.e. number of students taught.

The education voucher system is such a system. Subsidy is allocated according to student enrollment, thus the illusion that the money goes to the students or parents. In fact it is not. Government only pays the nurseries and kindergartens. The subsidy is very flexible, not to the parents or kindergartens, but to the government. Irrespective of the actual school fees, government only pays up to the maximum amount. Under the proposed formula, government pays $13,000 to $16,000 a year against school fee of $24,000. It is not free education, yet. Furthermore, schools under the subsidy scheme are well controlled. There is a long list of items for compliance including non-profitable status, annual school fee not more than $24,000, providing information on their facilities, academic qualifications of the principals and teachers, the number of teachers and students, special features of their curriculum, and teaching arrangements. Most of all, they will be subject to classroom inspection. The freedom of nurseries and kindergartens will be gone. The power of the education administrators is enhanced.

The introduction of the education voucher system to early childhood education can be viewed as a pilot project of reform of education resource allocation. There have been attempts on such reform in primary and secondary schools. In the past, the government supplemented student places of free education by buying some places from private schools. The subsidy to these private schools is calculated by the number of student places accepted by the government as allocation to free education. In the last few years, the government has been promoting the direct subsidy scheme to schools. Aided schools joining the direct subsidy scheme will be allocated subsidy according to the actual number of students enrolled, instead of the fixed sum tied to staff and classes. It is clear to see that schools which could not fill all the student places would not receive the maximum subsidy. To provide the incentive for aided schools to change to direct subsidy scheme schools, government allows them to charge school fees (this is against the policy of free education), employ any number of teachers to suit their need and freely set the salaries, and freely design their own school curriculum. It is like trading government control for less subsidy. Money is everything, under the name of allowing the schools to excel and giving more choices to parents. This is a contradicting education policy where school curriculum is tightly controlled for some, but greatly relaxed for others. Parents may send their children to aided schools to enjoy free education while studying under a much criticized rigid curriculum, or pay for the education in private schools or direct subsidy scheme schools with a much better curriculum which inspires students more.

The education voucher system, Hong Kong style, could be a much better system. If it can be successfully implemented in nurseries and kindergartens, then it will be very tempting to introduce the system to primary and secondary education. This will bring the education expenditure under better control, create a market among primary and secondary schools, bring in competition thus improvement in quality, while at the same time maintain government control on education by imposing criteria for entry of schools into the system. It will be difficult as many school sponsoring bodies have vested interest in the present aiding system. At present, the most useful tactic of the government is the closure of schools which have insufficient primary one or secondary one student intake against changing over to direct subsidy scheme. The education voucher system, or at least a partial introduction, may speed up the reform. We just need powerful and determined education administrators at the top.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Meeting the demand for improved public services

An article I received from McKinsey: Meeting the demand for improved public services. It is an interesting topic quite relevant to those involved in public administration. An extract of the article is appended below.

Our government has been struggling with active non-intervention lately, and is defending herself using the small government approach. The models in the article provide a mix of strategies on the provision of public services. Small is not necessarily always better. It is the right choice of mode of service delivery that commands effectiveness. LegCo members are hard to please. They are screaming for command and control approach whenever a problem arises, while at the same time reluctant to agree to additional resources. A quasi-market approach is often accused as collaboration between government and business sector. For the third model, government is often to take the blame of insufficient supervision wherever there is a crisis.

I agree that a right choice of an appropriate model for particular services is a way to reform the public service effectively. In any case, the government cannot provide all services by herself. In many occasions, business-like operation is often more efficient, effective and economical. However, the choice of the right model will require great wisdom.

Meeting the demand for improved public services, by Michael Barber, October 2006

The UK government's public-service reforms have been at the center of media controversy in recent months... In every developed country, the central issue is the same: people want higher standards and better customer service, but they do not want to pay higher taxes. Governments therefore face a productivity imperative, and three models for meeting this challenge have emerged.

The first model is command and control: primary school education and health care waiting times are illustrations. This approach is often essential for a service that needs to improve from awful to adequate. For a government, this is a big achievement, but the public wants services to go from good to great. While you can mandate adequate performance, you cannot mandate greatness. It has to be unleashed. This is why other models of reform are required.

The second model is to create quasi-markets, by devolving responsibility to schools, general practitioners, and foundation hospitals; giving more choice to parents and patients; and introducing alternative providers of schools and health services. The aim is to recognize that while these services are different from a business in that they are universal and equitable, they involve similar management challenges, which governments do not always meet with similar success.

The third model, which combines devolution with transparency, applies in circumstances where neither command and control nor quasi-markets would be appropriate. Under this model, the government contracts with (or delegates responsibility to) service providers and holds them accountable.

Many public-sector reforms around the world combine elements of the three models. This makes sense when a service varies widely in performance: a struggling hospital with a large deficit needs command and control, whereas a successful, well-led foundation hospital is best left to the disciplines of the quasi-market.

If this is the right approach, why the controversy? Partly because performance started from a low base and was slow to shift. People's expectations have been raised... But there is more to the current challenges than that. The health and education reforms are at a critical stage of transition away from command and control, and this requires sophisticated strategic leadership. A common error is to believe that moving to a quasi-market from command and control involves "letting go." In fact, as Ted Gaebler and David Osborne put it, governments must learn to "steer rather than row," so the role of officials has to change.

Furthermore, even as power and responsibility are delegated, it is clear that the public will hold the government to account when things go wrong. This places governments in a huge dilemma. When they are under pressure, command and control always looks attractive, but if this approach is adopted as a reflex, achieving good or great services will not be possible. For this reason, leaders need excellent risk and performance management systems.

Whichever model of reform prevails, public-service professionals must have the mind-set and ability not just to lead radical change but also to manage the transformed services... Reform in the UK public sector is heading in the right direction, but unless government departments and public services have the necessary leadership and capabilities, the results will be disappointing... Reform is all in the execution.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Tales from Russia 俄羅斯的故事

因為旅遊,今個樂季開始的音樂會都錯過了。港樂的兩場音樂 會,一場是太鼓協奏曲,另一場是Repin的貝多芬小提琴協奏曲都聽不到;門票都要送給別人。今晚(10月13日)是今季第一次聽港樂,是由 Atherton指揮的俄羅斯音樂會。

今晚的音樂會命名為俄羅斯的故事,全是俄羅斯作曲家的作品,有鮑羅丁的伊果王子韃靼舞曲 Borodin's Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor,浦羅歌菲夫的彼德與狼 Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf 和柴可夫斯基的胡桃夾子第二幕 Tchaikovsky's the Nutcracker: Act II。

這個音樂會是港樂的美樂自悠行系列,目的是以較容易欣賞的樂曲來推廣。音樂廳內有不少小孩子走來走去,工作人員都忙得不可開交,不停叮囑孩子們要安靜。第 一首韃靼舞曲,是鮑羅丁著名作品。鮑羅丁多才多藝,是化學界名人,又是作曲界俄羅斯五傑之一。但他作品不多,有很多作品都未完成,伊果王子歌劇是其中之一;但其中一段已完成的韃靼舞曲卻十分受歡迎。這樂曲由數段不同的舞曲組成,每一段都有其魅 力,其中一段更被改編為 Stranger in Paradise。

全場最受孩子歡迎的應該是彼德與狼了。這是浦羅歌菲夫輕巧的作品,和他其他艱深的作品有很大的分別。彼德與狼是一個很簡單的兒童故事,劇情實在簡單到只有小孩子,甚至是幼稚園孩子才感興趣。但孩子很難從音 樂中讀取故事內容,所以這首作品充斥著故事旁述。我想原作是以俄文寫旁述,但在香港演出就要使用廣東話和英語譯本。我自己一向不喜歡音樂中有旁述;但今晚有可愛的林家琦旁述改編過廣東話的兒童俗語版本,我都無可投訴。這首兒童小品可以表現浦羅歌菲夫的天才。他使用的音樂素材和配器,以輕鬆有趣的手法加上巧妙的樂器和音樂主題的運用,使這首兒童音樂極有欣賞價值。

胡桃夾子芭蕾舞劇的音樂是柴可夫斯基最受歡迎的作品之一;其中第二幕的組曲經常在音樂會演奏,因為劇中最出色的舞曲都在這裡,這些舞曲有趣又易明,所以時常被當作兒童音樂。它比彼德與狼這首小品篇幅較大,故事亦複雜得多,成人聽眾很容易受落。值得一提的是港樂演繹今晚的幾首樂曲 都清爽明快,聽來甚為舒暢。我看早前的樂評,說港樂早一兩場音樂會有點遜色。希望樂季開始後港樂的狀態會再提升。