There has now been a steady stream of cases where police, public hospital and immigration files have been lost, leaked or left somewhere. In a case reported on Sunday, concerning police electronic files, the reason given for the leak was that officers were so busy they had to take files home and somehow the files ended up on the internet.
Maybe it is time for a senior government official to call the director of administration and suggest that the whole public sector should review its record management systems to see whether systemic problems are to blame. No organisation can function efficiently without keeping good records and, within the government, the director is responsible for doing so. Good records management is an essential part of governance.
Some records must be kept for a long time, which is another reason for ensuring they are archived properly. Archives are considered so important to society that governments around the world enact legislation governing the creation and management of archival records. Professional archivists determine which materials are of archival value - that is, records that have long-term value to society. In other words, governments consider the handling and storage of records to be of the utmost importance, since mishandling and mismanagement can lead to a loss of valuable public assets.
Unlike most jurisdictions, Hong Kong does not have an archives law. At a seminar last Saturday, experts from the mainland, Singapore, South Korea and the US found that surprising. As the Singaporean expert said, the issue is not one that even needed debating. Records and archives management is just one of those acts of good governance that any administration should get on with. It is not something to resist or consult the public about, it is simply something that must be done. The Korean expert expressed envy that Hong Kong, despite not having an archives law, still had five archivists with the top qualifications in the field; his country, he said, had only one such person: himself. The mainland expert, from Shanghai, told of the importance of the municipal archives in his city.
Certainly, after listening to the experts, there was no doubt that an archives law is a 'must'. The presentation on Shanghai showed just how seriously the city's political leaders took archives management and described the substantial investment in their management.
It would be helpful if our officials could visit Shanghai to see first-hand how seriously China's biggest city regards the task of looking after public records. Perhaps if they understood the importance and complexity of the logistics of records management, they would no longer insist that the Hong Kong system of relying on internal guidelines was sufficient. Our officials clearly have not made the connection that the many incidents of mismanagement indicate that there are serious problems in our records management system. Local experts say the government's guidelines have not been revised for some time.
The Ombudsman is reviewing the code of access to information. Perhaps this will provide an opportunity to take a good look at how our public records are maintained. Many jurisdictions now have access to information laws, which give citizens a right to seek public information from files that are still in use. When files are no longer 'live', they should be handed over to professional archivists to assess what should be permanently stored. One can never tell when old records may be required again.
Two recent cases in particular highlight the need for proper archives management. When the government had a dispute with the Discovery Bay developer over land premiums several years ago, no files could be produced to justify the case. And, in the many dealings between Hopewell Holdings and the government over development in Wan Chai, officials have said it is not easy to find out what has happened over the years. Neither case should have happened: the records should have been there.
Christine Loh Kung-wai is chief executive of the think-tank Civic Exchange