The Central Government Offices (CGO) are expected to move to Tamar site in Admiralty next year. When it comes to that waterfront development, taking center stage is the contention that the new headquarters are an architectural eyesore and a planning failure. It’s all too easy to overlook that the CGO relocation could mean disaster for the keeping of public records, which chronicle government policies up to the present day. Without a comprehensive archive law to extend legal protection to public records, it's worrying that a large number of important government files—be they documents related to ex-Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa’s “85,000 housing” policies or files about the SARS epidemic—could be forever lost or destroyed after the CGO is moved into the new site. “If someone has to move from one place to another, he would of course first tidy things up. The government will move its headquarters, and public records are very important resources. I want to ask what kind of preparation works they have done,” says Simon Chu, former Director of the Government Records Service (GRS). “Before the relocation, I want to know whether the government has conducted any… survey to check the inventory of public records in different departments.” According to the GRS, the department responsible for running the public archives, no special measures have been implemented to guarantee the safe transfer of public records from Central to Admiralty. Although the GRS claims that government bureaus and departments are required to maintain an accurate inventory of records, the department admits that it doesn’t have the statistics on the number of files they keep. That lack of knowledge means that if officials—whether intentionally or not—lose important files during the relocation, the GRS can’t be sure whether documents have been misplaced or, if they have, how many. “The relocation of government offices might be a problem [for the keeping of public records]... But even if the government doesn’t need to move, it is already a great problem that Hong Kong does not have an archival law,” says Yip Yanyan, a member of the think tank Civic Exchange. The whole public records system is at stake, in part because government bureaus and departments are increasingly reluctant to transfer files to the GRS for safe-keeping. In 2006, a total of 61,124 items were transferred from government departments and bureaus to the GRS. However, the number decreased to 20,779 in 2010, a drop of about 66 percent in just four years. In theory, all government bureaus, departments and agencies are required to turn documents over for archiving. But in reality, some public offices—especially those that have a lot of power—send a very small number of documents to the GRS for appraisal and preservation. The Chief Executive’s Office, for example, has only sent a total of 478 archival records to the GRS for permanent retention over the last 10 years. Also, statutory bodies such as the Hospital Authority and the Trade Development Council are not required to hand documents in to the GRS. Under the current system, the GRS is in a very passive position. It is only when government bureaus and departments notify the GRS that they want to destroy certain files or documents that the archivists can step in, conduct an appraisal and judge whether there is a need to keep the files permanently. Our government preaches that the existing system is effective—but under it the GRS has no power to demand files be handed in for archiving. Some government bureaus and departments may claim that documents are still in use, and refuse to cede them to the GRS. “The government has put in place administrative arrangements to facilitate the identification, transfer and preservation of and public access to archival records,” says a spokeswoman from the GRS. In effect, though, the GRS has no teeth because it is not granted the power of sanction. If any government officials lose or destroy records without following the GRS’s guidelines, they need not face any penalty or a lawsuit (see sidebar, above right). The GRS says that disciplinary action can be taken against government officials who destroy government records, but it failed to provide examples of any such cases when we asked. “Archivists from GRS are the final guardians of heritage,” Chu says. True, the government produces tons of documents every day, but that doesn’t mean every file has to be archived. The sharp eyes of archivists evaluate the potential historical value of files—if they deem them valuable, they will be permanently archived. The GRS staff therefore bears an important responsibility, if not a mission, while it carries out its duties—archivists' judgment should not be affected by political agenda. Their job demands a great deal of professionalism. The Director of the GRS is a particularly important figure, because he has the final say on whether a government file should be kept in the archive or not. The qualifications of the GRS personnel, however, might not be up to snuff. “When we wrote our first report in 2007, we already pointed out that the government has been using what we call generalists to manage such a professional department,” Yip says. In the past, a professional archivist had always filled the post of Director of the GRS. However, the current director, Hillman Chow, isn't one. Instead, he comes from the Executive Grade (meaning he is trained as a manager and leader) and, before the GRS, he worked in Correctional Services. A number of management positions are now also manned by Executive Officers. The GRS spokeswoman says that the department holds records management training for staff. That, however, might be a waste of resources—since these officers will leave their positions at the GRS after a few years. All these developments in our public record-keeping procedures are largely due to the absence of an archive law, which would ensure a systematic transfer of government documents to the archive. Because our system is filled with loopholes, citizens are deprived of a very important means of transparency, a tool that would keep tabs on the government. “When the government refuses to make an archive law, it is avoiding the most basic form of monitoring. Now a lot of meetings are closed-door, and if documents are kept and the disclosed later, such decisions are monitored, at least in the most basic form,” legislator Cyd Ho says. Government officials should be held responsible and accountable—with public records acting as concrete evidence. The Archives Action Group, whose membership consists of former judges and academics, drafted an archive law in 2010, but the government said that there is no plan to approve it. “Government officials don’t think that government documents are public property. They produce such documents during office hours, using taxpayers’ money. But the government doesn’t want the citizens to know [about government affairs],” Chu says. On the road to an open government, archival law is only the first step. A Freedom of Information Act guarantees the public’s rights to gain access to government information. Hong Kong currently doesn’t have such an law, though it is common in other countries. So if our government continues to be disrespectful of our right to know, it seems that there will be an endless wait for the establishment of these two basic yet essential laws—unless we actively fight for it. Missing Files Below are three real cases of how the city’s lack of an archival law has hampered investigations and allowed government departments to avoid accountability. Tree Tragedy (2009) Nineteen-year-old Kitty Chong Chung-yin was killed as she was hit by a falling 25-meter coral tree while walking in Stanley. The tree was listed on the register of old and valuable trees and Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD) and had allegedly been inspected just three days before its collapse. At the coroner’s inquest, officials failed to provide documents proving that the required maintenance works had been carried out. LCSD Leisure Manager Cheung Yu-sang said that his colleagues had carried out the inspections, but he could not locate some of the reports. Interception Operations by ICAC (2009) Justice Woo Kwok-hing compiled a report on the Interception of Communications and Surveillance for the Chief Executive. In the report, he pointed out that four cases of interception operations were not authorized in 2007—meaning that it was illegal for ICAC to do. Woo demanded documents from ICAC. However, the commission said that the documents had already been destroyed. Discovery Bay (2004) In the 1970s, the government granted land for a holiday resort—which was to include a public golf course—in Discovery Bay. About 10 years later, the developer changed its mind and turned Discovery Bay into a residential area. The land uses were thus changed and defied the government’s original development requirements. In 2004, the Audit Commission conducted a special inquiry and investigated the case. However, officials from the Lands Department shifted the responsibility and said that it “had no record of how the lease conditions were drawn up or by whom.” The department also failed to provide documents explaining why the developers were exempted from paying a land premium. The Audit Commission estimated that the government lost a total of $160 million.