Fund is key fast track for policy, says Law Chi-Kwong
But its flexibility also requires a lack of accountability on spending, admits chairman
The Community Care Fund is a useful back-door for the government to speedily launch welfare programmes, which would take months or even years to gain approval via the normal channels, its chairman has said.
When this week's government budget injected a whopping HK$15 billion into the care fund's coffers, it raised its profile and highlighted the benefits - and possible risks - of its unusually flexible structure.
"[The fund] in itself is a social experiment - there has never been a fund [like this anywhere else in the world] made up of taxpayers' money from the government, and personal donations by members of society, and then used on public issues," said Law Chi-kwong, the fund chairman.
The fund was set up in 2011 to provide relief for the poor. Its current programmes include a one-off subsidy for people living in "inadequate housing", such as subdivided flats and cubicles.
Unlike government programmes, the fund's projects are exempt from the lengthy approval process of the Legislative Council - a simplicity that Law endorses.
"Right now, [the simple structure] affords us good flexibility to implement necessary programmes and apply quick funding for those in need," Law said.
"We can test the waters on new programmes with fewer strings attached [compared with government policies], and those which the government could adopt as recurrent programmes later on, if they proved sustainable and effective."
But that flexibility requires a loose system of accountability, Lam acknowledged. "The lack of a formal accountability mechanism could pose a huge risk in the future," he warned.
The CCF's spending decisions are made by a task force - which has 20 members appointed by the government - under the Commission on Poverty.
But there is very little transparency about how, exactly, the commission vets the fund's spending ideas.
With enormous sums like HK$15 billion involved, Lam said, the potential exists for large-scale misspending. He hastened to add that, so far, the care fund has been a success and no misspending has come to light.
Law estimates the fund will increase spending to up to HK$800 million this coming year. It aims to spend up to HK$1 billion per year in future.
Task force member Chua Hoi-wai, who is also business director of the Hong Kong Council of Social Service, said the task force takes care to listen to opinions from the social welfare sector, through focus groups, public forums and other venues.
Discussions are continuing about whether the fund needs closer monitoring, said Chua.
The fund was set up with HK$5 billion from the government, with an equal contribution expected from the private sector, but pledges so far have reached only HK$1.8 billion.