Keep the trust

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 December, 2010, 12:00am

The basis of a good relationship is communication and trust. I learned that in my first psychology lesson at school, while training to be a journalist and, too late, from a book I encountered long after my divorce. That volume, Broken Promises, Mended Hearts: Maintaining Trust in Love Relationships, by psychologist Joel Block, got thrown into the bin at the weekend at the start of my ritual end-of-year clean-out, but was quickly snatched back after I realised that it would make a great Christmas gift for the chief executive, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen. Coupled with a copy of the law for documentary heritage drafted by the Archives Action Group, there's no better present for a government that is so out of touch with the people of Hong Kong.

A friend had given me the book during the dying days of my marriage, but reading was the last thing on my mind in those tumultuous times. It was consigned to a shelf and there it stayed until I disturbed its resting place on Saturday morning. Coincidentally, hours later, I spoke to one of the founders of the archives group, Simon Chu Fook-keung, the former director of the Government Records Service. His reasoning for why Hong Kong so desperately needed legislation to preserve government records was echoing in my head as I flicked through the pages of advice about how to keep an intimate relationship from going sour.

Keeping lies, deceit and jealousy at bay wouldn't seem to have much to do with the collection and preservation of government documents, e-mails and the minutes of meetings. But the foundations of both are one and the same. The public acceptance of a government and its employees, just as with understanding between a couple in a love relationship, is rooted in trust and confidence. That requires being accountable for actions.

Most governments realise that full public access to records is an essential part of the accountability process. Mainland China, Macau and all developed-nation administrations have laws preserving records. Beyond accountability, they help support the rule of law and document culture and history.

It's appalling to know that Hong Kong lacks such a law. In its place is an archive in Kwun Tong headed not by a professional archivist, but by an executive officer, and guidelines for civil servants as to what they should keep and send on. They're not bound to do the job and don't face penalties for not carrying it out properly. Officials claim the process is working well, but Chu and others in his group contend that the lack of oversight means no one is the wiser about what is being kept, discarded or even destroyed. They worry about electronic documents like e-mails - an ever-growing part of government business - for which there is no firm policy on preservation.

The system was better under British colonial rule. Chu said copies of documents considered important were sent to London for archiving. They can be readily accessed, unlike the originals in Hong Kong, which have sometimes not been archived or been taken out and not returned. Since the handover in 1997, they've barely been added to: the offices of the chief executive, chief secretary and financial secretary haven't transferred records due to 'operational needs'. Classified records, which should be opened after 30 years, have more often than not remained closed.

I like conspiracy theories and would dearly like to think that the government's reticence is about keeping underhanded deals secret. Alas, that doesn't seem to be the case. Instead of deliberate mismanagement, civil servants are being inept and lazy.

The draft law that the agency has offered to authorities is simple enough. It establishes a statutory body headed by a professional archivist with the ability to formulate policy. The archivist would be able to acquire records from all government sections and statutory bodies. Every record kept would be available for public access in 20 years unless authorities gave good reason. Denying access would be an offence and civil servants who didn't create or manage them properly would face a fine and jail.

Unfathomably, the idea has been rejected, so lawmakers have to take it up. To push the process on, I'm preparing my gift of love.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post