Public access to well-preserved government records is fundamental in a free and open society. It enhances transparency and accountability, and ensures the way decisions and policies come about are faithfully recorded in history. It is the hallmark of responsible governance.
Sadly, the Hong Kong government has yet to fully embrace this principle. Despite the implementation of some administrative guidelines, government files are neither properly archived nor fully open to the public. The resistance to mandating compliance through legislation means irregularities can go on unchecked.
A full investigation initiated by outgoing ombudsman Alan Lai Nin has put the scale of the problems into perspective. For instance, seven departments have not taken any action for years, despite rules requiring the appraisal and disposal of records at least once every two years. During the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome in 2003, the Hospital Authority held informal meetings without minutes. Access to information also leaves a lot to be desired. Only dozens of the 400-odd public bodies have voluntarily subscribed to a code to open up files upon request. Those in charge might actually have a different understanding of the spirit and letter of the code.
That it has taken a parting shot by the ombudsman to renew the momentum for legislation is regrettable. Lai is not alone in feeling embarrassed that the city is lagging way behind the US, Britain, Australia and mainland China, where laws are in place to protect citizens' right to information. There is an unequivocal case for Hong Kong to follow. Yet officials continue to dodge the pressure with a study by the Law Reform Commission, which will not be ready until 2016.
Records today are history tomorrow. Only through proper archives and open access can government be effectively monitored and history truthfully preserved. Legislation should be expeditiously followed up in line with Hong Kong's reputation as a free and open world city.