Thursday, October 02, 2008

Critical years for ICT

Critical years for ICT

On September 7, 2008, the election for the fourth Legislative Council of the Hong Kong SAR was concluded. A new legislator for the Information Technology Functional Constituency was elected, and I was defeated by Samson Tam with a small margin of 35 votes, a 0.8% difference out of the 3,999 valid votes cast.

As I said many times during the campaign, I believe the next four years will be a critical period for the future development of Hong Kong's ICT industry, and our professionals. This is based on assessment of the opportunities and mature conditions in the region for Hong Kong, 11 years after our reunification with China. However, with the recent financial crisis precipitated by the collapse of Lehman Brothers and others, the next four years will be even more critical, with an added sense of urgency and a threat of crisis.

Sector boost: e-public services

During the campaign, I met professionals in the ICT sector who worried about job cuts and layoffs initiated by the same sector that started the ICT job boom and pay raises a few years ago: the financial sector. Some worry that because of the depth and extent of the problems faced by the financial sector this time, the cuts will be deeper and will hurt our professionals more than the SARS epidemic.

This is why I believe that the main policy recommendation I made during my election campaign-more and faster adoption of e-public services-remains the key policy ingredient that will help boost the ICT industry. During an economic downturn, governments often turn to boosting domestic consumption and infrastructure development as a means to revitalize the local economy and create jobs. In a networked and service economy, more investment in e-public services will help us withstand the shocks of economic cycles.

Such investment will not only create jobs where they are most needed-locally-and sustain the local ICT industry, it will also benefit the broader community by providing a higher level of quality for public services. And in the eyes of the public ICT will be seen as a positive factor rather than some form of biased subsidies, or resources spent on bureaucratic overhead.

More specifically, this investment can initially focus on several areas of public services such as healthcare (e.g. electronic health records), transport (intelligent road network and intelligent transport information systems), education (e-books and possibly PCs with broadband connectivity for students), etc.

Issues in ICT

But of course, the devil is in the details. There are still many issues faced by the professionals inside government, and outside contracted suppliers, that need to be resolved in order for such investment and development to be undertaken in a fair and competitive manner. The freeze on hiring analyst programmers inside government has caused a lack of upward mobility inside the ranks of government IT professionals, limiting the career development of civil servants and contractors alike, and even causing project management problems. On the other hand, various unfair terms are also faced by government outsourcing suppliers, and they must be reviewed and rectified.

Another major concern I heard from ICT professionals during the campaign was about professional certification. I believe these coming four years will be a golden period to make professional certification a reality through legislation. But the ICT sector must come together and agree on a framework, for example, based on the registration and certification system drafted in the past ten years through the work of our previous IT-sector legislator.

Maintaining citizens' privacy

Last but not least, we must protect information freedom, security and privacy-critical factors of Hong Kong's economic success and our core values. Various consultations and legislations will have profound implications: the review of the Control of Indecent and Obscene Articles Ordinance and Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance, the formation of the Communications Authority and the convergence of telecommunications and broadcasting legislations, the future of public service broadcasting, and not to mention the possible legislation for Article 23, which will carry great implications on the liabilities over our ICT industry as a whole and even our individual professional practitioners.

With all these challenges and opportunities, I pledge to continue to realize the commitments I made to my voters-from which I share a virtually equal mandate as our elected legislator. This is my responsibility, and I hope our ICT professionals, a majority of which aren't even voters in the functional constituency, will join me on this path to a better tomorrow for ICT and for Hong Kong.

Published in Computerworld Hong Kong October 2008 issue

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