Access to information in Hong Kong falls behind other countries, says Ombudsman

Alan Lai Nin calls on government to improve transparency as complaints increase

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 March, 2014, 12:27pm
UPDATED : Friday, 21 March, 2014, 9:00am

Hong Kong needs laws to strengthen access to government information and mandate a modern archiving system, the Ombudsman has said.

That would address "embarrassing" problems that have seen the city fall behind many developed countries in efforts to increase government transparency, the ombudsman said.

A report found that the current system might have laid out rules for dozens of government bodies, but did not have penalties ensuring they were followed. The scope of the rules is also limited, with the Hong Kong Monetary Authority and Independent Commission Against Corruption the only two public bodies covered; 22 others, including the Hospital Authority, have chosen voluntarily to adopt them.

Ombudsman Alan Lai Nin cited mainland China, the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand as having legislation in place - in contrast to Hong Kong, which is still studying a possible freedom of information law and an archive law. "I took part in international conferences and realised Hong Kong was so backward. I was a bit embarrassed," he said yesterday.

Lai's office spent a year investigating the government's Code on Access to Information and records management system under the Government Records Service (GRS). Government advisers on the Law Reform Commission are examining the possibility of legislation in both areas.

Without the two laws, officers handling records would not make it a priority to archive and provide data, Lai said.

From 2008 to 2012, seven departments and public organisations, including the HKMA and Central Policy Unit, failed to transfer any records to the GRS for disposal appraisal, as required every two years, the Ombudsman found.

Staff members misunderstood how the code was to be followed, especially when turning down public requests for data.

One complainant said the Environmental Protection Department had refused to provide information on the exhaust systems of two problematic restaurants because it was "third-party information" and therefore protected by privacy rules.

The Ombudsman found the decision inconsistent as the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department had provided the data.