Ensure accountability when subsidising sports and cultural events with public money
The Mega Events Fund expires in March and it’s still very much up in the air whether the government will continue with the scheme
The government likes to position Hong Kong as the events capital of Asia, so much so that hundreds of millions of dollars have been set aside in a government funding scheme to finance key sports and cultural events over the years. While officials argue that the events help attract tourists and enhance the city’s international profile, prudent spending remains an issue of concern. With the scheme expiring in March, the question is whether it should be extended. If officials believe there is a case to continue the scheme, better supervision and safeguards are needed.
Set up in 2009 with HK$100 million, the Mega Events Fund initially financed programmes organised by non-profit-making bodies. It was extended under a modified two-tier system. Nearly HK$160 million has been spent on more than 30 projects so far.
Whether community events can continue to tap into the fund in future remains unclear at this stage. An official familiar with sports events said while the government was considering various options, it had no intention to continue with the fund.
The subsidised events did enrich the experience of visitors and locals alike. But whether taxpayers should continue to fork out money year after year is another matter. It should be noted that commercial sponsorship has made some of the events financially viable on their own.
For some events that are heavily dependent on the scheme, there is little incentive for them to explore other funding. As some key events have been subsidised for years, the fund has arguably created a legitimate expectation that makes termination difficult. Regrettably, the Audit Commission in April 2014 unearthed a raft of irregularities including dubious spending items, exaggerated data of the benefits to the city and conflicts of interest.
When organised properly, mega events enhance the city’s image. But the use of taxpayer money comes with responsibility and accountability. If the scheme is to be extended or replaced by a similar initiative, the public needs to be convinced that there will be a better mechanism to ensure that money is well spent.