HK$250,000 PR deal sparks anger with watchdog

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 December, 2010, 12:00am

Privacy Commissioner Allan Chiang Yam-wang is under fire for spending up to HK$250,000 to hire a public relations firm three months after taking office.

The unusual move of hiring a PR firm surprised many of the groups and lawmakers approached by the firm in the past month.

The firm, hired through a single-tender procedure by Chiang, is the same one he used when postmaster general from 2003 to 2006.

'This is totally unnecessary and a waste of money,' Democratic Party vice-chairwoman Emily Lau Wai-hing said she told Chiang at a meeting arranged, ironically, by the firm.

'I have never heard about a rights advocacy statutory body hiring a public relations firm,' Lau said.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data said this week it appointed the PR firm 'to provide strategic input and execution support for the exercise [of the consultation of privacy law], from November 1 to December 31, 2010'.

'The cost is based on the actual man hours spent subject to a maximum expenditure amount of HK$250,000', and 'a non-commercial rate was negotiated', the office said in a written reply.

Although the office's procurement guidelines discouraged single tendering procedures, Chiang went ahead with such a process because of the 'unforeseen urgency' of the matter, the office said. 'Formal and relevant procurement procedures had been followed prior to the appointment of the PR firm,' it said.

According to its guidelines, the office should go through tendering procedures when buying goods and services worth over HK$200,000. It has two tendering options - restricted, in which several service providers are invited to submit quotations, or single tendering.

Since last month, many rights groups and lawmakers have received calls from the PR firm, A-World Consulting, to arrange meetings on the recent review of the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance.

Society for Community Organisation director Ho Hei-wah said he felt 'very odd' when he received a call from the firm as a 'middle man' to set up a meeting with the watchdog.

'It does not really function to improve engagement with NGOs through a PR liaison,' Ho said. 'The privacy watchdog should set up regular contact channels with social groups.'

The PR firm's staff have accompanied Chiang at meetings with groups and the media since last month.

'The hiring of a PR firm reflects the new commissioner is not confident about promoting privacy work,' Human Rights Monitor director Law Yuk-kai said. This might be because Chiang was involved in a post office privacy row when postmaster general, Law said. She understood the commissioner might need more support and resources to promote the views of his office at a critical moment of consultation on privacy law.

'But the hiring of a PR firm comes against the background of the office, which was well known under the previous commissioner for its tightened budgets and lack of resources,' Law said.

The watchdog received HK$46 million in taxpayers' funds this year. It has two full-time staff responsible for handling corporate communications and media relations.

Other government-funded statutory bodies involved with people's rights, including the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Ombudsman and the Consumer Council, said they had not hired PR consultancy services in the past three years.

A-World Consulting said it was engaged to provide advice and support to the privacy commissioner's office, and 'there have been close to 40 such meetings [with stakeholders] arranged and conducted by the end of the review consultation period', which ends on December 31.

A spokeswoman for the Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau said the privacy office had autonomy to manage and control its activities, and 'is not required to inform the government on its expenditure on individual programmes, but would provide regular reports on overall expenditure positions to the government.'