The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has called for a review of how public officials use private messaging channels to conduct official business.
It comes as the ICO publishes the findings of a year-long investigation into the conduct of Health Department ministers during the pandemic, which found “ministers and staff made extensive use of private correspondence channels”.
“More publicly available evidence also suggests that this practice is common across much of the rest of government and has existed since before the pandemic,” the report added.
The investigation revealed that important information surrounding the government’s response to COVID-19 pandemic may be lost or unreliable due to the use of messaging programs.
Earlier this year, Lord Evans, then chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, said the government had shown “negligence” in its approach to standards and criticized ministers for conducting official business through WhatsApp.
According to the ICO, the use of private messaging channels during the pandemic “has brought some real operational benefits at a time when the UK has faced exceptional pressure”.
However, they also “presented risks to the confidentiality, integrity and availability of data sharing”, the ICO report added.
In particular, it found that “the Department of Health’s policies and procedures are inconsistent with Cabinet policy on the use of private email… and have some significant gaps based on how key individuals have operated in practice.
“This posed a risk to the effective processing of requests for information in accordance with relevant codes of practice in [the Freedom of Information Act (FOI Act)].”
Mail channels were “legitimate”
The data watchdog, which is responsible for enforcing the Freedom of Information Act, has issued the Department of Health with a formal order requiring it to improve the way it responds to requests for information.
Last year the government denied creating a Clearing House unit to profile journalists and undermine freedom of information requests following a letter from newspaper editors demanding action.
The department was also reprimanded and ordered to “improve its processes and procedures related to the handling of personal information through private correspondence channels and ensure the security of information.”
“To ensure wider lessons are learned, the ICO is also calling on the government to conduct a separate review of the use of these channels,” it said.
A government spokesman said: “This report shows that the channels of correspondence used by ministers and the department were legitimate.
“Ministers and officials have had to work at breakneck speed during the pandemic, and the use of modern technology has been essential to deliver vital life-saving public services – such as building a testing system from scratch and rolling out our world-leading vaccine programme.
“The government is committed to accountability and transparency, and we are already reviewing our policy on the use of non-corporate communication channels.
“We will carefully consider the ICO report and also recognize the continued benefits of using digital forms of communication,” the spokesperson added.