06 March 2023
Following the Daily Telegraph's reporting of leaked WhatsApp messages sent by Ministers during the COVID-19 pandemic, Information Commissioner John Edwards set out his views on the importance of record keeping. This piece first appeared in print in the Daily Telegraph on Saturday 4 March.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
George Santayana, the philosopher, would have had little comprehension of WhatsApp messages, but his century-old quote feels very prescient this week.
Put simply, how are we going to learn from the experience of the pandemic if we cannot remember it? How are we going to prepare ourselves for any future virus outbreaks if we have not properly reflected on the successes and failures of our previous approach?
When the stakes are so high, we cannot rely on individuals’ recollections. We cannot rely on tranches of WhatsApp messages stored on a person’s phone.
The Telegraph’s reporting of the lockdown files exposes how WhatsApp messages were used to discuss and decide key government business during the pandemic. It also underlines the importance of maintaining a public record of these private transcripts for transparency, accountability and lesson-learning in the future.
Let’s be clear – this is not about preventing the use of WhatsApp. New technologies bring new opportunities, and it is clear these can play a crucial role in keeping us connected. But the clear risk is that decision-making via WhatsApp risks being lost from the public record if it is not properly recorded and stored.
It is incorrect to suggest that information on WhatsApp is not covered by freedom of information – if messages relate to a public authority’s official business, then they absolutely can be requested through a freedom of information request.
But we know in reality that much of this information rests on people’s personal phones, or within personal accounts, and that it is rarely properly documented and archived.
The issue, then, is not that WhatsApp is being used by ministers, but that policies and procedures in place across Whitehall no longer reflect how ministers and officials work and interact in practice.
It is essential we examine and address the impact this is having. Last year, we concluded a year-long investigation into what is now being described as “government by WhatsApp”.
In our concluding report, Behind The Screens, we found that the lack of clear controls and the rapid increase in the use of private messaging apps for government business had the potential to lead to important information being lost or insecurely handled, and posed real risks to transparency and accountability within government.
We further called for a review into the impact of the use of private messaging apps within government, and a consideration of the case for a stronger duty on ministers and public servants to maintain the public record, something we see in Canada, New Zealand and the US. I reiterate that call today.
The Cabinet Office is on record with an intention to issue guidance to departments on the use of non-corporate communications channels imminently, which will replace the guidance on the use of private email that was issued in 2013 and predates many new communications apps.
I hope this will mark the beginning of a real sea change in how communication in government departments is handled.
We rely on a collective memory of the past to avoid repeating the same mistakes in the future. Stores of hundreds of thousands of WhatsApps do not cut the mustard.