Officials' zeal pays off
With its usual vigour, the Audit Commission has unearthed a string of bureaucratic blunders in another set of value-for-money studies. This time round, the most costly mistake was about, of all things, the definition of a street. A shrewd move by a developer who successfully argued that a walkway could be considered a street, combined with a careless mistake by lands officers in failing to specify the maximum amount of building area, meant more flats were built on a Siu Sai Wan site than envisioned by planners.
As a result, not only was the Government's planning objective defeated, but public coffers were in danger of being short-changed by as much as $1 billion because the original reserve price was set too low. In the event the company that bought the site paid well above this amount.
This was reminiscent of a mistake where the plans for buildings in Central were approved on condition that elevated walkways to relieve congestion at street level were built. But because of ambiguities in the documents, the walkways were either not built or built but used as office space.
The administration of the Quality Education Fund constituted bureaucratic misdemeanour of another kind, which involved hijacking a fund intended for other purposes.
The $5 billion fund is meant to finance one-off pilot initiatives from schools and teachers aimed at enriching the learning process. But while the fund has launched many meaningful projects, much of the $2.8 billion it has disbursed so far are for projects that have only a tenuous link with enhancing education quality. For example, it is hard to see how installing air-conditioning for classrooms and libraries has anything to do with quality education.
That the QEF has virtually become a supplementary funding source for schools is not surprising. Before it was set up, the Arts Development Council had complained that the Education Department went to it for money to finance arts projects, which had almost become standard in many schools.
For their zeal in ensuring bureaucrats stick to stated government policies, staff of the Audit Commission are sometimes seen as pariahs by other civil servants. But the community is richer because of their work.