Tighten the checks on statutory bodies

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 December, 2007, 12:00am

Dubious use of public money, chaotic management and questionable cost-effectiveness. These have emerged as some of the common shortcomings of statutory bodies, as identified by the Audit Commission.

Recent cases include the scandal surrounding the Applied Science and Technology Research Institute; now the Tourism Board has joined the list.

According to the latest Audit Commission report, seven of the board's senior executives were still paid more than is allowed under its own benchmark on pay, as of April.

The former executive director, Clara Chong Ming-wah, received a package that amounted to HK$4.56 million, plus a HK$177,000 executive medical insurance plan.

Admittedly, there are probably different and complex reasons behind each individual case.

Founded in different circumstances, each public body has operated under different systems of governance.

But the fact that one after another has been found to have similar problems of maladministration raises serious concerns. Are there, for instance, structural deficiencies that could breed malpractice within these organisations?

Although public bodies are under the jurisdiction of the relevant policy bureaus, they operate with a high degree of autonomy when delivering their services.

This is of increasing importance in view of potential fast changes in the external environment. For instance, leaders in the tourism sector have to make quick decisions on issues such as marketing strategy and promotional campaigns to cope with shifts in the market.

While a certain amount of room for flexibility is justified, it is equally true that there has been a rise in public demand for closer scrutiny of such bodies, as well as greater accountability and transparency. This is ostensibly because they use public funds.

Increasingly, people are looking to the Audit Commission to act as a watchdog over the executive authorities.

As cases such as the one involving the Tourism Board have shown, it is no longer convincing to argue that irregularities and maladministration are the inevitable price we pay for allowing public bodies to operate with few constraints.

The negative publicity surrounding these public bodies has tarnished their image and undermined their authority, thus defeating the original purpose of delivering government services through a more effective institution.

In view of a worldwide trend towards smaller government, plus the ever-changing economic environment, turning public bodies back into government organisations is neither possible nor desirable.

Clearly, the Tourism Board is not the first - and almost certainly not the last - public body to be mismanaged. Given this fact, a comprehensive review is needed of the checks and balance system that governs their functioning.

Although high-ranking officials sit on the decision-making boards of bodies like the Tourism Commission, it is impractical to expect them to closely monitor day-to-day operations.

It is critically important, therefore, for the government-appointed boards of public bodies to function proactively and effectively.

This includes putting together a set of management guidelines on work procedures and decision-making, one that strikes a balance between flexibility and accountability. And it has to be followed up; implementation of the guidelines needs to be closely monitored.

Doing so will prove to be a practical and effective approach. It is the best way to ensure that everyone - the government, public bodies and society as a whole - benefits.

Chris Yeung is the Post's editor-at-large.