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September 2022
Issue No. 310

Welfare Council welcomes new CEO

11th July is surely a day to be remembered for the Hong Kong Sheng Kung Hui Welfare Council as they welcome Patricia Lau as their new CEO. In this interview, Patricia shared with us her experiences in growing up, her faith, her past work, and how it all will feed into her new post at the Welfare Council.

Patricia, why don’t you share with us how you feel right now?

It’s a complex mix: I’m excited, I’m thankful, and I have butterflies in my stomach! This is such an important post, and there’s potential for helping many in Hong Kong – for that I’m very excited, and I’m thankful for our Father leading me here to this point. But I also have this huge anxiety bubbling inside me, as Dean Franklin said in his sermon at Holy Trinity Cathedral. And so beneath the whole adrenaline rush, I have to ask God and myself: am I truly suitable for this? I prayed for an answer, and I was blessed with the support of those around me. Slowly I got over the immense anxiety.

What sort of image does the Welfare Council hold for you? And what attracted you to it?

The Welfare Council provides wide-ranging services, across social classes and different communities. All of these service units are down-to-earth, with very visible and tangible help. That’s what makes it attractive to me.

I worked for 12 years in the government, and the happiest thing looking back was the establishment of the ‘Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship Fund’ (SIE Fund). It was something entirely new, and the experience taught me a lot about the social welfare sector and the reality of poverty in Hong Kong, as well as the problems that teenagers and ethnic minorities face every day. All of these not only made me reflect upon the question of how should we help them, but it also ignited this spark of interest in me to contribute to social welfare. I wanted to take part as much as I could, and pour in all that I know and all my skills into the effort, and make even just a bit more of a difference for Hong Kong.

Let’s turn our attention now, Patricia, back to your school days. Are there any unforgettable experiences you’d like to share with us?

For my secondary years, I attended St Mary’s Canossian College. At the age of 17 my whole family emigrated to Australia, and I joined the Year 12 class there. My classmates couldn’t be friendlier, but the initial shock was inevitable. I wasn’t used to the Australian accent, and communication was a pain point early on. Sometimes it took me a whole topic change to finish digesting what they were talking about a minute ago, and that really wasn’t a great feeling – of being left out! And no matter how friendly they are, they’re still not the same friends who I knew since young. I prayed to the Father for the strength to overcome these challenges, to overcome this loneliness, and I slowly grew accustomed to my new environment. When it was time for university, things got better. That experience taught me how preparation and perseverance in learning are key when going into a new environment. The most important thing, of course, is to pray, and listen to the Father’s will.

I went on to the University of New South Wales to study land surveying. It’s a subject that rarely sees female students, and I remember that during Year 1, out of the 80 there were only three girls! And I was the only Asian. As an ‘ethnic minority’, I told myself that I have to do my best. I finished my bachelor (honours) and master degrees there, both on land surveying. And it opened my eyes to the idea that no matter what limitations there may be surrounding you, for as long as you give your all, your talents can still shine through.

Thinking back, these childhood experiences in turn equipped me for today’s work in social welfare. My own personal experience in breaking through my own boundaries as an ethnic minority, in seeking to push through the challenges ahead – all that is a mirror of what I’m seeing in this field. That said, no matter how well you equip yourself, the Welfare Council is still a new environment for me, and patience in listening to God’s guidance is paramount.

I know that you are experienced in both the public and private sectors, and also academia. How do you think that would feed into your work now at the Welfare Council?

That’s something I’ve been asking myself. What can I contribute to the Welfare Council? When I was working on the SIE Fund, I understood that cross sector collaboration is a prerequisite when it comes to solving social issues. The United Court project is good example of this. I can bring my experience and networks from the governmental, private, civilian, and academic sectors to the table, and act as a bridge between the Welfare Council and all these sectors of society.

I think that cross sector collaboration between these four will be an important element in the future development of the Welfare Council. I look forward to these four sectors working together for a set of common values, and together with the Welfare Council’s human-centred design thinking, I hope my joining could bring contributions to the whole endeavour.

At the SIE Fund I pushed for two concepts: ‘Shared Value’ and ‘Collective Impact’. Shared Value is the idea that on top of making a profit, private businesses should also have the responsibility of giving back to the society, fulfilling or solving at least one social issue. For this I hope that I could bring more people from the private sector into the social welfare field, and let them understand the different issues we face as a society today. With the resources they have from their businesses, we can then look into solving these problems. Other than that, I am also connected with various government officials, and if the Welfare Council requires contacting the authorities, I hope I can be the contact bridge.

And as to Collective Impact, it’s a term that I came up with when I was at the SIE Fund. The hope was that we could add some creativity element to the Fund to facilitate social innovation in the whole Hong Kong, but as someone coming from a business background, I understand that running an SIE Fund within the government is very difficult. Plus, with the limited team we have under the government department, the effect we had was limited. So we decided that the work of the SIE Fund will be led by collective innovation organisations, and let them decide what is the best way to facilitate innovation in their own circumstances, creating a much higher effectiveness. The government would play only an organisational and facilitating role.

Design thinking is an important strand of the Welfare Council’s DNA, and I promoted design thinking as well when I was working in the government. Design thinking is a set of ideas and procedures where a new service product’s organisation or design phase is imbued with communication with the service’s user or beneficiary. Via this communication, we understand their needs, habits, the problems they face daily, and even their reasons for using this service. With them we design the service’s contents together, and in the process we invite them to trial the drafts and provide feedback. Through iterative improvements we arrive at a solution that fits their needs, and only then do we launch the final product.

Such a method is different from the consultant workflow, but it could work with it. Consultants usually look at the big picture, and design thinking usually focuses on the details, with an emphasis on ‘user’ needs. Currently, design thinking is usually used in elderly services, but I think this set of procedures and ideas could be implemented in the future for other services as well.

How can Shared Values, Collective Impact, and Design Thinking help in alleviating Hong Kong’s poverty problem?

As a whole, we could recommend ideas of Shared Value with big corporations, and encourage businesses to shoulder part of our social responsibilities. When deciding the details of anti-poverty projects, we could invite people from poor backgrounds and families to be involved in the designing process, so that the final service provided can truly reflect the needs of the poor and underclass. The Welfare Council can also invite other social welfare organisations and non-profit organisations to jointly run anti-poverty projects, so as to widen their reach.

Any recommendations for the issue of elderly accommodation?

I think the problem of elderly accommodation is not just a problem of not finding a place to live in, nor is it something that is exclusive to the underprivileged class. It’s also a problem of hardware, as in residences with a design or facilities that don’t fit the needs of the elderly. Likewise it is also a problem of software, like the property manager and security staff receiving training that doesn’t teach them anything about meeting elderly needs. It’s questions like: Do the passageways and bathroom designs meet the needs of wheelchair-bound elderly? If one of them unfortunately wanders off and gets lost, will the security be able to handle the situation? Or perhaps, are they trained to prevent this from happening in the first place? My own mother suffers from dementia, and she lived with us before she entered a care home. I knew first hand what it means to look after the elderly.

I know that some social enterprises would offer to help the elderly in renovating their homes. I believe this is something that should be promoted. We may even advise property developers to add for-elderly elements when they plan their new housing projects. Perhaps such facilities could become a standard in flat hunting.

The HKSKH deems school and social services as its mission arms, with tight integration between them and the church. What are your views on education?

I’m not an expert when it comes to education, but I could draw up some insights from my past experience. I like the Chinese saying that ‘A person’s character at 80 is formed when they are 3 years old’. It’s very important for a person’s life that their morals, consideration for others, life education and such are nurtured from a young age. This is because once you’re grown up, attaining new knowledge and skills would become easy from online sources, and professional skills can be replaced by technology like AI at any time.

Rather, it is soft skills like observation, adaptability, improvisation, networking, teamwork, communication, and critical thinking that require years of honing, and can be useful in many stages of one’s life. To wit, learning ‘how to be a person’ is someone that I think should be taught from a young age.

The last question is also the most important: as a Catholic, what role does faith play in your life?

To me, faith is the centre of my life, it plays an important role in it. My parents are both Catholics, so I was baptised when I was still an infant. Religious education and confirmation came when I was in primary school, and in secondary school I joined the Legion of Mary and other charitable organisations. The Legion of Mary was led by a nun, and we read the Bible together, alongside praying and serving the community. Every Sunday morning we’re responsible for collecting the offertory and altar serving in one of the masses. And it was there when I met my husband. Acquaintance grew into a relationship, as we slowly knew more about each other when we bumped into each other on each occasion. After emigrating our communications paused for a while, and it was until after university when I returned to Hong Kong for work that we met again and married. We’re still married to this day, and I believe it was all according to God’s plan.

I also believe that becoming the Welfare Council’s CEO is part of God’s plan, too. When I first transitioned from working in the government to teaching at the Education University, I thought that would be my last job before I retired. It didn’t occur to me that God had other plans for me. Just like how the physics teacher back in Secondary 5 used to say, ‘Just as the celestial bodies never tire in their journey, we should thus strive to better ourselves always.’ I hope I can, as the Welfare Council’s CEO, tirelessly imitate the path of Christ, and go forwards always.


(© 教聲/ ECHO)


(© 教聲/ ECHO) 

<The above article was published in "Echo" Issue No. 310. Please click here>


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