Councillors are drowning under flood of paper

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 January, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 04 January, 2010, 12:00am

The city's 18 district councils are being urged to cut down on the use of paper - currently well over two million pages a year - while increasing transparency by posting more documents online.

The city's 534 councillors each receive an estimated 5,000 pages a year - most of it meeting agendas, minutes and discussion papers. That adds up to 2.67 million A4-sized pages, which require 334 trees to produce, according to the green group Consumers Acting for People and the Environment.

Many district councillors agree that a great deal of unnecessary paper is generated for meetings, while many council documents are not available to the public online. These include matters of great public interest such as discussion papers on food and environmental hygiene issues.

Yau Tsim Mong district councillor Chan Wai-keung said: 'I receive a set of meeting papers a week before the meeting, and might get another set during the meeting itself. Sometimes, I receive more than one copy of the same notices from the district council secretariat.'

He said it was better to send digital copies to councillors because it could sometimes be difficult to find a specific item in the 'paper mountain'. He estimated each district councillor received between 5,000 and 7,000 pages a year.

Posting documents on the internet would improve the transparency of council work, Chan said.

'District council committees' discussion papers have not yet been uploaded to the website,' he said. If the public could not find documents online, then that indicated the system lacked transparency, he said.

The Central and Western, Wan Chai and Kwun Tong councils face the same issue. Wan Chai district councillor Yolanda Ng Yuen-ting said most of the council's documents were printed out.

'I receive at least 20 to 30 pages at each meeting,' Ng said. 'But it makes sense to improve our transparency, as district councils' work is tied closely to the lives of Hong Kong residents,' she said.

Kwun Tong district councillor Tang Wing-chun said inadequate computer systems hindered the move towards digitisation at his council.

'The computers in the council's secretariat are old and slow, making it difficult for us to go digital,' Tang said. 'The community would benefit from higher transparency. People cannot respond in a timely fashion if they can't access all documents.'

The Legislative Council has done a better job of going digital: most documents and officials' public comments can be found on the Legco website.

Central and Western district councillor Chan Choi-hi said digitisation was proceeding slowly there.

'As for the minutes from meetings, it would be better to let us choose either soft copies or hard copies. The paper I get in a year would make a pile at least 1? metres high.'

Tanya Chan, a member of Legco's environmental affairs panel, said sending documents via e-mail would help cut down on the use of paper. 'That way, users can choose whether to print them out or not,' she said. She estimated each lawmaker received at least 10,000 pages of paper a year.

Carol Kwok Wai-ling, project co-ordinator with Consumers Acting for People and the Environment, said that trees were vital to combat global warming. 'Trees take in carbon dioxide and give out oxygen. The fewer trees that are cut down, the less global warming will affect the planet.'

The Home Affairs Department supported greater use of computers in district councils, a spokesman said.

'Since August 2007, we have provided wireless internet access in district council conference rooms, members' room, offices of the chairmen and the vice-chairmen in 18 districts,' he said. 'District council homepages have been improved, including larger server capacity.'

The department would 'continue to upgrade the computer facilities of district council secretariats as resources permit', he said.