Politicians and advisors can turn off history when using Google Workspace messaging, threatening transparency and accountability
Ministers in the UK can set their official messages to delete automatically after some time if there is no need to retain a record of communication, the government has told transparency campaigning group The Citizens in response to a freedom of information (FoI) request.
The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) said in a letter that ministers and civil servants are allowed to use instant messaging (through Google Workspace) in preference to email "for routine communications where there is no need to retain a record of the communication".
"Chat messages are retained for 90 days to provide staff with the opportunity to record any substantive conversations, after which time they are permanently deleted. Users can also switch history off, meaning messages will be deleted once a chat session has finished," it added.
The DCMS also provided the transparency group a document explaining its collaboration tools guidance, although it had no reference to self-destructing message services, according to The Guardian.
Last month, The Citizens teamed up with the law firm Foxglove to challenge the government over the issue. On 26th May, they sent a 'pre-action protocol letter' to the Secretary of State, setting out legal arguments against the use of self-deleting messages by ministers and staff.
The campaigners argue that the use of self-deleting messages lacks transparency, and poses an "urgent threat to democratic accountability and to the future of the public record." They note that the UK Public Records Act 1958 mandates all government records about government policy to be reviewed and retained for public archiving.
"This law covers, for example, messages between a special adviser and a minister about UK government policy - such as preparations for Brexit or the government response to the coronavirus pandemic," the campaigners state.
They also warned the government that they might initiate a legal challenge if the government fails to give a satisfactory response with 14 days.
"If urgent steps are not taken to ensure that ministers and officials don't erase the record, critical files - on Covid policy and other key areas of British history - risk being lost forever. That would be a tragedy," Clara Maguire, executive director of The Citizens said.
"It's astonishing, frankly, that government have for years had a policy which allows ministers and officials to delete their instant messages whenever they wish. If the government don't fix this problem in 14 days, we'll see them in court."
Cori Crider, director of Foxglove, said the government's existing policy on instant messaging needed a fix without delay.
"It's no good to say they're fixing it now just because the Citizens has threatened legal action. This problem needs fixing yesterday," she said.
"The government needs immediately to send out a message across the civil service, telling everyone to stop using deleting message settings for government business now - before more critical evidence is irretrievably lost."
A spokesman for the Cabinet Office recently told the BBC that there are "appropriate arrangements" in place to record official communication and to adhere to guidance. The spokesperson also said that periodic reviews are conducted to ensure that collection methods are sufficient.