The Good Law Project’s latest court case show just how embedded WhatsApp is in Westminster. The prime minister apparently uses it for his red box work;[i] backbenchers use it to plot rebellions; ministers and special advisers to brief journalists. New research from the Institute for Government also reveals how prevalent its use is in some departments: over 30% of officials in the Treasury and 17% in the Cabinet Office have the app installed on their work phones.
The app is undeniably useful. It enables quick communication, can help ministers cut through bureaucracy, and allows people to recreate the impromptu conversations previously held in corridors or parliamentary tea rooms (this was particularly useful during pandemic).
But messaging apps have disadvantages too. Our report looks at the problems raised by WhatsApp and how government can address these.
While WhatsApp is useful for quick updates and sharing simple information, it is a bad way to make important decisions. It does not allow for detail or nuance, and it is too easy to set up a group without thinking through who needs to be in it. This risks participants not having all the relevant information, and lacking valuable input – for example from the people who will have to implement their decisions. Leaks from Dominic Cummings showed that during the pandemic key issues were made in this way. That should change.
The increased use of WhatsApp also risks transparency and scrutiny. Government departments have a duty to account for their actions to parliament and to provide information (unless exempted) under the Freedom of Information Act. Our research found that departments are not always able to adequately search WhatsApp if they receive such a request.
Departments are also required to keep relevant records for the long term and, after 20 years, transfer them to the National Archives. Of course, they do not need to keep everything – there is no need to keep a message confirming a meeting time or location. But they do need to make sure that they at least have thought about how they will identify which messages to keep.
According to evidence in a court case last year, the government already has a ‘Security of Government Business’ policy that says ministers should not use their personal phones for government business.[ii] This needs to be fully enforced: when we spoke to former ministers and officials, we found several examples of ministers using their own phones for government business, and a blurring of the line between what is party political and what is government business.
Many departments already have a policy for use of WhatsApp and similar messaging apps by officials, while some also refer to central guidance from the Cabinet Office. But some – Defra and HMRC – do not allow the use of WhatsApp for government business at all. The varied approaches by departments means it is hard for officials to know what rules apply to them, and risk them not being enforced. Departments should take a more unified approach – recognising the benefits that WhatsApp can bring while also managing the downsides.
Rules and guidance only go so far. Government relies on good communication and WhatsApp is only the latest development – there will be other apps that follow, and government will need to manage those too. Ministers, from the prime minister down, need to take responsibility and recognise that in their government roles, their communication is subject to greater constraints than in their role as MPs or peers. And officials need to build a culture that fully complies with the requirements placed on those in public life by the law and by public expectations. If poor behaviour is endemic, that will be reflected in the use of technology – but the opposite will also be true. WhatsApp is not going away, so government needs to make sure it is using it properly.
[i] Dyer H, ‘Boris Johnson has ministerial red box work cut down to "short updates" sent via WhatsApp every day’, Insider, 22 March 2022, https://www.businessinsider.com/boris-johnson-receives-daily-government-memos-via-whatsapp-2022-3
[ii] Good Law Project, ‘Boris Johnson and three Ministers breached national security guidance over private messages’, Good Law Project, 16 September 2021, https://goodlawproject.org/update/boris-johnson-breached-security-guidance/