Guardian of public purse will settle for respect, if not love

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 July, 2010, 12:00am

After publishing 13 audit reports and investigating 58 government departments and 13 non-governmental organisations in the past seven years, Benjamin Tang Kwok-bun says: 'Auditors are never loved, the best we can hope for is to be respected.'

The Audit Commission reports, which have taken on interests as diverse as property developers, government departments, the privacy watchdog and the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra, get widespread media coverage while sometimes drawing a backlash.

'No one likes to be criticised, no matter how justifiable those criticisms are,' the director said. 'We don't expect [government] people to love what we do.'

The latest controversy surrounds the orchestra, which gets more than 82 per cent of its income from government subvention. The Audit Commission report showed that about a quarter of the orchestra's artistic staff worked 43 per cent less than required by their contracts in 2008/09, and that 5,262 complimentary tickets were given out without a proper written record.

The 96-page report was strongly criticised by art critics and patrons as 'too money-minded'. They questioned how the Audit Commission could weigh the result of art performance in monetary terms. The orchestra fought back point by point and said its artists had to practice at home so no one should measure their hours as if they were 9 to 5.

But Tang said the artists were required by their contracts to work just 28 hours a week - modest by international standards. 'If you say practice time at home should be counted as working hours, then if a member had practised at home for 28 hours a week, does it mean he should be totally exempted from the orchestral rehearsal the following week?'

To ensure proper use of public money, the Home Affairs Bureau entered into a funding and services agreement with the orchestra that required it to adopt proper internal controls of its staff.

Tang said the commission had just evaluated it according to its employment contract terms. 'I don't care if it is an orchestra or any other business; a contract is a contract.'

He said the commission had launched the investigation after receiving five or six complaints from orchestra insiders.

'We hope we can help the government keep an eye on taxpayers' money. If we can't monitor well the account of a government-funded orchestra, how can we make sure every penny is well spent by the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority in the future?'

The battle between the Audit Commission and the orchestra illustrates a major problem: unco-operative government departments and public bodies.

Earlier this month, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data posted a recruitment advertisement, offering HK$1.6 million for an internal director to monitor human and other internal resources as well as implement the Audit Commission's suggestions.

The move was seen as a sarcastic response to the audit report that found the privacy watchdog had spent too much on unnecessary office space, promotional expenditure, farewell dinners and wine for events.

Tang said he didn't know why the Office of the Privacy Commissioner had to hire one more person to mend its inefficient operation. 'It's up to Stephen Lam to follow it up.'

Stephen Lam Sui-lung, Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs, is in charge of the privacy authority.

Tang said the Audit Commission had already pushed the Privacy Commissioner Roderick Woo Bun to roll his sleeves up.

'To be fair, Roderick Woo is working much harder than before. He was not really heard of in the past three or four years until we walked into his office,' he said. 'I am not sure, but he might have taken his appointment as a semi-retirement job before. He started to make noise about protecting privacy after we did the report.'

Tang knows well the trick of using attention-grabbing reports to cast the spotlight on public governance problems.

'It is sexy if you look at somebody using public money to buy fung shui services or to buy a very luxurious insurance policy, and to stay in the ambassador suite during an overseas trip,' he said.

In 2007, the Audit Commission issued a report on Hong Kong Applied Science and Technology Research Institute Company, a research arm set up under the Innovation and Technology Commission of the Commerce, Industry and Technology Bureau. The report disclosed that the research institute had paid fees of about HK$181,000 for fung shui consultants to advise on the relocation of its office.

'A lot of people asked me who the fung shui master was. But if the fung shui service was really that good, the auditor would not have visited,' Tang said.

'It is a classic example. I am not saying they have broken any rule. Indeed they had gone through all the tendering process and had granted the contract to the lowest tender. But they should review whether it is appropriate to spend public money on fung shui, especially with regard of the nature of their work. I used this to alert government bodies to think twice before they spend.'

Another high-profile example was the HK$177,000 super medical plan that the Tourism Board bought for its former executive director Clara Chong Ming-wah without proper approval. The Audit Commission also exposed the low attendance of some board members at Tourism Board meetings; and showed that almost half of the head office staff had received higher than the maximum of their respective salary ranges.

The report issued in October 2007 sparked 46 hours of hearings in the Legislative Council Public Accounts Committee between December 2007 and February 2008, and contributed to Chong stepping down.

Tang hopes that these cases serve to remind all NGOs and government bodies that someone is watching them. 'We can't inspect every government department and NGO and there are thousands of problems among them.'

Despite all the efforts the Audit Commission has made, unused public flyovers and tunnels, and unnecessary promotions and campaigns are seen everywhere and every day in Hong Kong. Tang said it was the job of various government bureaus and Legislative Council panels to follow things up.

He did not agree that the commission was a toothless tiger, but added: 'Let's face it. Can you name any civil servant who had been taken out of his or her service because of our reports?'