GIS Through The Years


By Thomas Chan
Director Information Services

GIS - as the Information Services Department is more commonly known - has always been a 'different' department. A major reason is the scope of our work, which includes news enquiries, public relations, research, overseas promotion, advertising, creative design and publishing. Another is the nature of our work which, in a nutshell, helps build bridges between the HKSAR Government and the community it serves through the dissemination of news, information and policy. Working at the coalface of public interaction as we do, GIS also serves as the 'eyes and ears' of government, reporting reaction to important decisions or policies and then helping devise ways in which to sell that 'product' to an often sceptical public or media. It is true to say also that the scepticism can sometimes extend to within government, where GIS's public relations instincts might not always sit well with a more conventional approach preferred by a policy bureau or department. These are the challenges we face daily and expect. And we would not have it any other way.

It should come as no surprise then that this book, written by former Assistant Director Peter Moss, is not your usual 'anniversary publication'. As you might expect from a published novelist and unconventional civil servant, it is not a dry chronicle of GIS achievements or milestones over the past four decades, nor does it simply explain what we do with lots of nice pictures. Rather, it is a story about Hong Kong from the perspective of a man who worked in the Information Services Department (ISD) through some of Hong Kong's most formative years.

Peter was with GIS for almost 29 of our 40 years and is a keen student of the Hong Kong story. He returns from his retirement home in Vancouver from time to time to provide the text for Frank Fishbeck's pictorial essays on old and new Hong Kong.

Peter's book on ISD takes a personal broadbrush look at the development of the ISD since it was established on April 1, 1959, and also provides a potted history of Hong Kong, its free and vibrant press and the genesis of the Hong Kong Government's public relations efforts and strategies. In that regard it is a book to mark our anniversary, rather than an anniversary book.

The department today has come a long way since 1959 when, on establishment, staff strength, was bolstered from 53 to 95. In early 1999, there were some 350 information officers in the department, and a further 210 general and common grades staff. Technology has transformed the work of the department. The cacophonous chatter of typewriters has long been replaced by the click-clack of a computer keyboard; teleprinters have been relegated to the scrap heap and replaced by an electronic news service, GNIS, which is wired into every major news organisation in Hong Kong. The Government Information Centre, the HKSAR Government's Internet home page, gives us a world-wide presence in cyberspace which allows anyone with an Internet account to tap into millions of words of information about Hong Kong. Our photographers now transmit their 'prints' digitally, instead of processing hundreds of copies for distribution; our creative designers use the latest software and equipment to produce in minutes, visual effects that once took hours or were impossible. Government officials can now hold a 30-minute video conference with overseas offices in Europe and North America, Australia, Japan and Singapore when once such in-depth briefings would have only been possible one-on-one over the phone and taken much longer.

Our 40th Anniversary has given us all a rallying point for 1999 - an opportunity to look back at our achievements and developments over the past four decades and to look forward to the challenges of the new century. Whatever technological advances there may be, our job will always be one that basically relies on personal contact with our civil service colleagues, the media and the public. The job is getting harder, as the public, rightly, demands more of the government and its 'public servants'. But I have no doubt that GIS staff are well equipped to deal with any challenges thrown their way. After all, that's what we have done for the past 40 years. Why should the next 40 be any different?

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