Government guidance on use of private email and WhatsApp to be updated for first time in a decade

Cabinet Office minister says that department will release new guidelines ‘as soon as possible’

Government is to imminently release new guidance on the use of private communications channels – such as WhatsApp and Gmail – by ministers and officials: the first time such guidelines have been updated in a decade.

A publication date has not been set, but a minister has claimed that the new guidance – which come in light of criticism of representatives using personal accounts to conduct government business – will be published by the Cabinet Office “as soon as possible”.

The current advice has been in place since it was published by the Cabinet Office in June 2013; since then, the global user base of WhatsApp has quadrupled to about two billion and the software is now estimated to be used as primary mobile messaging app by as much as 80% of UK smartphone users. The last decade has also seen the launch of new platforms such as Signal and Telegram.

The existing guidance – which refers almost exclusively to email, rather than the broader communications landscape – states that “it is aimed at addressing issues, common to all departments, which have arisen through the growth in the use of emails in conducting departmental business”.

Government representatives are advised that, however they communicate with one another, they must ensure they comply with all relevant legislation on data-handling, including the Official Secrets Act, Freedom Of Information Act, Data Protection Act and Public Records Act. The document notes that, in response to public requests or legal issues, officials and ministers may be required to explain their choices regarding the location of information and messages and the means of sharing them.

But the guidelines seems to provide scope for official business to sometimes be conducted via unofficial channels: “civil servants and ministers are generally provided with access to government email systems; other forms of electronic communication may be used in the course of conducting government business”.

In addition to the official advice, a legal case in 2021 revealed the existence of previously confidential internal guidance for Cabinet Office staff which said: “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.”

The use of platforms including instant chat, WhatsApp and webmail tools like Gmail has been subject to increasing scrutiny and criticism in the past two years. This began following reports that emerged in summer 2021 that ministers in the Department of Health and Social Care – including former health secretary Matt Hancock – had made widespread use of personal accounts for communications related to government’s response to the coronavirus crisis.

The department was subsequently issued with a formal reprimand and recommendations for improvement by the Information Commissioner’s Office.

The issue reared its head again in November when it emerged that home secretary Suella Braverman had repeatedly sent government documents to a personal email account.

Following the revelations about the use of non-corporate channels by DHSC ministers, the Information Commissioner’s Office launched a year-long review into the use non-corporate communications channels and issued its own updated advice clarifying that WhatsApp and private email are subject to FOI laws when used to conduct official business.

At the conclusion of its probe, the ICO published a report in July 2022 warning of “systemic risks” posed by private messaging systems. The regulator called for the government to conduct its own review of the issue – which the Cabinet Office said was already underway.

Eight months on and former MP Tom Watson – now a Labour peer – posed the department a written parliamentary question as to its plans to “publish the guidance given to civil servants for providing advice to, and communication with, ministers on WhatsApp, Signal, and Telegram digital channels”.

In response, Baroness Lucy Neville-Rolfe – a minister of state at the Cabinet Office with responsibility for transparency – said that the department intends to release new guidelines imminently. These will take the place of the advice published 10 years ago which, as it stands, is still in effect.

“The Cabinet Office intends to publish guidance on the use of non-corporate communications channels as soon as possible,” Neville-Rolfe said. “This will replace the guidance published in 2013.”

Sam Trendall

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