The latest case for public accountability

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 May, 2008, 12:00am

The report on the Tourism Board is a damning indictment of the travel promotion body under its former executive director. The result of an inquiry by the Legislative Council's Public Accounts Committee, it highlights wasteful practices, loose financial controls and incompetent management. The picture painted is of a dysfunctional organisation deficient at almost every level of planning, execution and evaluation of major promotions and activities.

This situation, it seems, arose despite the more than adequate resources provided by the government. Thankfully, a series of reforms has been launched by James Tien Pei-chun since he took over as board chairman in April last year. It is hoped that the latest Legco report will add impetus to the reform process.

The report puts the blame squarely on the HKTB's former head, Clara Chong Ming-wah. The board of the HKTB, the government and other top managers were also criticised and reprimanded for contributing to what the report has described as 'chaotic management'. The Legco committee did not mince its words.

Former board chairwoman Selina Chow Liang Shuk-yee, rightly came under fire in the report. She has wisely accepted most of its findings and issued a public apology. This is the minimum requirement in such circumstances. Mrs Chow might consider herself fortunate that her successor in the post is Liberal Party colleague Mr Tien, who has not been one of her more vocal critics. The position might have been different if Mrs Chow's successor had been someone who does not have close links to her.

Ms Chong has declined to respond to the report. Throughout the public hearings in Legco before this report, she remained defensive and refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing. But it was Ms Chong's expensive medical plan that she obtained for herself and her family at a cost of HK$177,000 that first caught the government auditor's attention and brought the HKTB under public scrutiny. The premium plan was not approved by the financial secretary, as was required, nor was it properly vetted by the relevant people within the organisation, including Mrs Chow, says the report.

Like the heads of most publicly funded statutory bodies, Ms Chong was well compensated. The size of her package during the last of her six years at the helm - which ended in April last year - amounted to HK$4.56 million. The salaries of many of her top lieutenants also well exceeded the market median during this time. The government has, with justification, argued that top pay is necessary to lure the best talent from the private sector. But the HKTB episode shows this alone is not enough. Good governance and proper management set the conditions necessary to ensure talented managers do not abuse their privileges or misuse funds.

The latest report is the third prepared by the committee in recent years. It looked critically into the management of the English Schools Foundation and the Hong Kong Applied Science and Technology Research Institute, finding a lack of accountability, poor management and waste of resources - prompting reforms.

Public bodies have access to large amounts of taxpayers' money but are often not subject to the checks and balances which would apply if they were government departments. The Audit Commission takes them to task from time to time. There is, however, a need to find a better, more rigorous, way of monitoring such bodies to ensure that they are fully accountable - and that public funds are not wasted.