The way forward after Harbour Fest blues

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 May, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 May, 2004, 12:00am

The independent panel report on Harbour Fest confirms what has been clear since the early days of the project - that it was a good idea, motivated by the best of intentions but it was overly ambitious, badly organised and inadequately monitored. This was not the way to ensure that $100 million in public funds would be well spent.

The report, however, also sheds new light on the affair. It lays bare the full extent of the bungling and inefficiency that left the taxpayer with such a hefty price to pay.

We were led to believe the series of star-spangled concerts last autumn would be the 'festival of festivals', a 'mega event'. Certainly, the shows went down well with the 125,000 people who attended them. But viewed from the perspective of good governance, accountability and value for money, they might be better described as a comedy of errors.

The report, prepared by two respected experts, reveals that the government effectively handed the American Chamber of Commerce $100 million to organise the event without trying to critically assess the organisation's ability to do so.

This would not have been quite so bad if officials had set up a proper structure to carefully monitor the organisation of the events and the use to which public money was being put. But this was not done.

As a result, the huge undertaking was left in the hands of three members of the chamber; they simply did not have the expertise or experience required. And when things went wrong, the government either did not know until too late or was powerless to do anything about it.

There are many examples in the report of mistakes that should not have been made. The government entered into the original, legally binding, agreements without even getting the Department of Justice to take a look at the terms.

It waived the usual right to access contracts and records, leaving officials in the dark as to what performers were being paid. Even when the organisers made a basic change to the nature of Harbour Fest - cancelling sports and other festival events while increasing the number of concerts - the government did not know. There was no requirement that even a matter as important as this should be brought to the government's attention.

The ease with which this large sum of public money was handed over and the failure to properly supervise how it was being spent is staggering.

No one escapes blame in the report. The panel found that all parties had, in various ways, departed from acceptable standards of governance, business prudence and professionalism.

Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, who appointed the panel, has promised that follow-up action, perhaps against officials found responsible, will be considered. In the circumstances, this is an appropriate response.

It should not be forgotten, however, that the idea of attracting top-class performers to our city for a series of high-profile concerts and festivals was a good one. We should not give up on it.

Harbour Fest was too big, too rushed and became a model of how not to go about organising such an event. But the report does make recommendations that, if followed, could lead to a successful festival in the future.

This would involve the government working in partnership with the private sector. The event would, at least initially, be more modest. Public funding would be kept to a minimum, and plans for the festival carefully assessed. Arrangements would be strictly monitored and the whole process transparent. Importantly, the public would be fully engaged so that the event becomes one that enjoys full participation and support.

We no longer need to bounce back from Sars, and our economy is much healthier than it was when Harbour Fest was conceived. But a new event would be welcome - so long as we go about it the right way. And perhaps it should merely be big, rather than 'mega'.