Government guidance encourages use of instant messaging rather than email for ‘routine communications’

Documents released to High Court reveal civil servants are told to switch message history off where possible

Credit: Pxfuel

Confidential Cabinet Office guidance on the use of instant messaging apps instructs staff not to retain records of “routine communications” unless there is an identified need, documents released to the High Court have revealed.

The guidance was released as part of a bid to secure a judicial review into the government’s use of instant-messaging services, such as WhatsApp and Signal. The case, brought by campaigning law group Foxglove and non-profit organisation the Citizens, was yesterday granted leave to proceed to a full hearing.

Launching the challenge process earlier in the summer, Foxglove said the use of personal messaging apps was an “urgent threat to democratic accountability and to the future of the public record” given that there may be no official records of those conversations.

It argued that reports indicate officials are making increasing amounts of decisions via instant-messaging apps, and that the inability to recover deleted messages – unlike deleted emails – could be a major political and legal problem, such as in providing evidence for the future Covid inquiry.

Foxglove’s comments followed former No.10 chief special adviser Dominic Cummings’ release of WhatsApp transcripts, including one suggesting prime minister Boris Johnson believed health secretary Matt Hancock was “f***ing hopeless” in the early days of the pandemic.  Hancock resigned from government in June.

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The Cabinet Office guidance on instant messaging revealed at this week’s High Court hearing appears to be directed at officials rather than ministers.

It states: “Instant messaging is provided to all staff and should be used in preference to email for routine communications where there is no need to retain a record of the communication. Instant message history in individual and group chats must be switched off and should not be retained once a session is finished.

“If the content of an instant message is required for the record or as an audit trail, a note for the record should be created and the message content saved in that. For example, written up in an email or in a document created in a word processor which is itself saved into the relevant drive.”

Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner said the guidance showed open government was under threat.

“Ministers must not govern by private messages that are then deleted. This is completely undemocratic and an attack on transparency and accountability,” she said. “Yet again the Tories are doing everything they can to cover up their dodgy dealings and avoid being held to account for their failures.”

The Cabinet Office said it did not comment on specific legal cases but also flagged the existence of published guidance on access to information and how formal decisions are recorded for the official record.

“Ministers will use a range of modern forms of communication for discussions, in line with legislative requirements, and taking into account government guidance,” a spokesperson said.

The department added that not all communications connected with government business were sensitive. It said there was a huge difference between substantive business, including decision making, and informal, trivial or ephemeral communication.


Sam Trendall

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