Ministers, officials and advisers should not use Whatsapp for important government business, think tank says

An inquiry into use of private mobile phones in government hears that officials use private devices on a "daily basis"
Photo: Microsiervos/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

By Tevye Markson

23 Mar 2022

Ministers, civil servants and special advisers must be stopped from using their personal phones for important work business, the Institute for Government has said, after it emerged none of Boris Johnson’s phone messages prior to April 2021 are available to be searched.

The prime minister has used personal WhatsApp accounts to communicate “critical decisions”, including on the Covid-19 pandemic,  according to evidence submitted as part of an ongoing High Court case brought by campaign groups All the Citizens, Foxglove and the Good Law Project who have brought a legal challenge against the government’s use of mobile phone communications.

The groups  claim the government is breaking the law by using unofficial channels to conduct official business. In a witness statement heard by the court on Tuesday, Sarah Harrison, chief operating officer for the Cabinet Office,  said officials use private devices on a "daily basis".

Harrison also informed the High Court that: “In April 2021, in light of a well-publicised security breach, the prime minister implemented security advice relating to a mobile device. The effect was that historic messages were no longer available to search and the phone is not active.”

The Good Law Project said this would have “serious implications for transparency and holding the prime minister and his government to account”, highlighting its potential impact on the ongoing Partygate scandal and a future inquiry into the pandemic.

The High Court also heard that there are "many instances" of crucial government decisions made over WhatsApp and other messaging services being unlawfully deleted.

Guidance uncovered by the Good Law Project as part of its legal action challenging the use of private phones in government makes clear that “ministers must not use personal devices, private email or personal apps to conduct government business”.

In a report published today, the IfG said several ministers and special advisers in different departments already choose to only use their business phone for government work and it is it is “unacceptable” that their colleagues do not do the same.

The think tank said departments need to manage WhatsApp in a more formal way so that information gets to all the relevant people and it is not used to make detailed decisions.

It said departments must also ensure relevant WhatsApp messages are kept long term and the use of the messaging service does not hinder transparency or scrutiny, calling for steps to be taken "to tackle weak and inconsistent processes for searching devices, or transferring messages to government systems for storage".

“By adopting these processes, and clearly communicating and enforcing them across departments, the government will be better able to draw on the benefits of WhatsApp while minimising the risks it poses to effective and transparent government”, the IfG report said.

The think tank added that WhatsApp has improved government communications in some ways, allowing officials direct access to ministers and making informal communications easier.

But it said messaging apps also risk poor decisions being made with incomplete information, calling it a “superficial way to make decisions”.

The Good Law Project said use of personal devices for communications is a threat to national security, makes it difficult for the govenment to comply with Freedom of Information requests and duty of candour required by the courts and enables ministers to be held to account.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: "There are appropriate arrangements and guidance in place for the management of electronic communications, including instant messages. As with all guidance, we will keep this under constant review.

"All ministers and officials are aware of the guidance around use of communication channels."

The Cabinet Office said it is not commenting on the ongoing litigation.

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