Good governance depends on well-kept records

Yan-yan Yip says poorly kept public records are a matter of great concern because the consequences can be fatal, and there's no excuse not to act

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 February, 2013, 4:04am

We know how quickly the government can act if there is enough public pressure and it has the will to do so. Take parallel trading of baby formula as an example. Officials put forward, within weeks, measures to limit the amount of the product people could take across the border. Of course, for some parents, action should have been taken yesterday.

However, for issues that are neither on the government's agenda nor on the public's radar, it may take months or years to see any progress. Public records management is probably one of them.

Today, the government relies on its administrative guidelines to ensure "proper" public records management within bureaus and departments.

Nonetheless, in 2011, the Audit Commission released a report pointing out the problems associated with public records management in Hong Kong, such as the fact that many bureaus and departments had not implemented certain key mandatory records management provisions. If these mandatory guidelines had been effective, we would have got a very different picture from the commission's report.

Hong Kong urgently needs an archives law to ensure public records are kept and managed properly, and to allow the public access to the records. Back in November 2011, then legislator Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee moved a motion in the Legislative Council on enacting an archives law. It was disappointing that the motion was defeated due to inadequate support from functional constituency legislators. Half of the 50 legislators present abstained, while one cast a "no" vote.

If the same motion were to be put to the current crop of lawmakers, what would the result be? How many legislators have paid attention to this issue? Sadly, just a few.

The Ombudsman initiated an investigation into public records management last month and the Law Reform Commission has also set up a committee to study an archives law in Hong Kong. Thus, it seems that the topic has drawn some attention recently. The administration says it wants to see the results before considering taking further action. This means we still have to wait.

For the general public, it may be hard to directly relate the importance of proper public records management to their daily lives. Thus, there's a lack of public pressure for the government to act. However, the list of cases of mismanagement is growing and some relate to life-and-death issues. The fall of a 23-metre-tall tree in Stanley causing the death of a 19-year-old woman is one example. The tree had been inspected not long before its collapse, but relevant inspection records were not available. What was the condition of the tree?

People should be made aware of the impact on them and on areas like governance and government revenue.

Public records are public property, after all; the government keeps and manages these records on the people's behalf. Surely we do not want to see more cases of public records mismanagement that may spark public uproar before this gap is filled?

The government needs to get its act together before it is too late.

Yan-yan Yip is CEO of Civic Exchange