Call for archive law to protect valuable government data

Ombudsman can help by investigating the outdated record system, an archivist says

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 January, 2013, 4:06am

The city needs a law to protect archives from being lost under the maladministration of government departments, a problem that has not been handled properly despite repeated advice, a veteran archivist has warned.

Simon Chu Fook-keung, former director of the Government Records Service (GRS), hopes the Ombudsman will give priority to protecting government documents at risk in its investigation.

"If the documents are not properly archived, the public will not be able to retrieve anything precious under the Code on Access to Information," said Chu, who formed the Archives Action Group with scholars and former judges to push for archival legislation.

He expressed support for the Ombudsman's announcement yesterday to look into both the code and the government's records management system. The code is an administrative guide put out in 1995 that guarantees transparency and accountability.

Under a set of guidelines issued in 2009, government bureaus and departments are required to organise and dispose of official documents, including e-mail correspondence, properly. However, the guidelines - which are mandatory - did not specify the circumstances in which records should be created and imposed no penalty in cases of non-compliance, Chu noted.

"They do not make it necessary for departments to create records during the policymaking process," he said.

Chu, who received overseas training and was attached to a foreign archival agency for two years, said the government tended to recruit senior executive officers to head up the GRS.

"GRS directors lacked the professional capacity to do the job, undermining the system. They may simply follow a department's instruction to destroy valuable records."

The guidelines say departments "must obtain consent from the GRS director before disposing of records", but controversies that emerged in recent years have highlighted the deficiencies of the system.

In 2011, the government admitted that it had destroyed documents equivalent to almost three times the height of the Two IFC building before it moved into its new Admiralty headquarters.

The revelation prompted questions on whether the destruction involved valuable data, as Hong Kong's document-saving rate of 0.03 per cent in 2011 is far lower than the international practice of 3 to 10 per cent.

In the same year, the Audit Commission reported that records were susceptible to poor storage and improper management. It found four departments had neglected guidelines that required them to report the loss or destruction of data to the GRS.

The negligence occurred despite preservation strategies suggested after a conservation adviser found in a 2002 survey that 30 per cent of 1,600 selected government records had deteriorated in condition.

The government also admitted in 2010 that the offices of the chief executive, chief secretary and financial secretary had not transferred their records to the GRS since 1997. The inaction effectively blocks members of the public from obtaining classified government information.