Big spending on mega events brings big responsibility

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 April, 2014, 3:11am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 April, 2014, 3:43am

The Mega Events Fund created by the government to help raise Hong Kong's international profile has accomplished the mission in a rather negative way. From application screening to project delivery, from management to compliance, the HK$250 million fund created with taxpayers' money is plagued with mega problems.

As the name suggests, the fund aims to be big and splashy. That is why the proposals are all packaged as something great when wooing government subsidy. But grand events with international appeal cannot be staged without the right experience and expertise. The HarbourFest controversy in 2003, in which HK$100 million was spent on concerts to boost the city's image after the Sars epidemic, was a good lesson for those entrusted with the authority to spend. Regrettably, fiscal prudence is an art yet to be mastered.

Established in 2009 and last modified two years ago, the fund aims to attract tourists and reinforce our role as the "event capital of Asia". Mindful of the sensitivity involving taxpayers' money, the Tourism Commission has laid down clear approval criteria. It has rules aplenty for monitoring and compliance. However, the spirit of the letter is not always followed, as found by the government auditor in the latest value-for-money probe.

Statistically, seven in 10 projects are rejected, suggesting applicants may just see it as a convenient funding source. Of the 24 approved so far, three-quarters are not first-time events. The strategic change in 2012 to try bring in top overseas events has also failed so far to achieve any result.

The raft of irregularities found is shocking - inflated job numbers, dubious spending items, lack of invoice and payroll records, questionable ticket sales, conflict of interest in staffing and procurement. There is no shortage of jaw-dropping examples in the 100-page report. For instance, there were no invoices or payrolls for the HK$3.9 million spent by the annual Dragon and Lion Dance festival over the past three years. So rare is the scale of the problems unearthed that there are doubts whether the fund should continue. Calls on graft busters to step in are also growing.

Good mega events improve Hong Kong's image and add vibrancy to our city life. But big spending comes with big responsibility. If the government is convinced that the fund can still serve its purpose, better mechanism has to be put in place to ensure taxpayers' money will be well spent.