Is rule by WhatsApp sending wrong message on transparency?

UK politicians have been accused of taking a cavalier approach to record-keeping by using easily deleted WhatsApp messages for official business after a slew of revelations this week from the official Covid-19 Inquiry. 

The hearing into the UK government’s handling of the worst pandemic in a century has unearthed a trove of embarrassing exchanges between former ministers and officials.

It has also raised questions over whether the smartphone records of Britain’s senior politicians should be kept indefinitely for future scrutiny — and how much privacy should be granted to those who firefight difficult decisions.

The use of WhatsApp by politicians was a “new manifestation of an old problem”, said Alice Lilly, senior researcher at the Institute for Government think-tank which works to improve efficiency at Westminster — adding that it had replaced the informal conversations once held “in smoke-filled corridors”. 

In Scotland, the debate blew up this week as the devolved administration struggled to contain controversy over allegations in the media that ministers and officials had deleted conversations conducted over the app during the pandemic.

Nicola Sturgeon, former Scottish first minister, was accused of deleting private messages after the Covid inquiry said it had not yet received copies of WhatsApp messages from the Edinburgh government. 

Meanwhile, on Monday former prime minister Boris Johnson’s ex-private secretary Martin Reynolds revealed he had switched on a “disappearing message function” in a WhatsApp group between Number 10 staff weeks before the public inquiry was announced. 

Unlike email, instant messages sent via applications such as WhatsApp and Signal are encrypted and not stored in a centralised server. This means only the sender and receiver are able to see them and when a message is deleted from both phones, it cannot be accessed again.

Crucially, under government guidelines ministers or officials must keep a formal record of when they use WhatsApp for government business, by taking screenshots or contemporaneous notes of the conversation. But many sidestep the rules by claiming discussions do not pass the threshold.

Duncan Hames, director of policy at Transparency International UK, an anti-corruption charity, said it was hard for people working in government to delineate between political discussions and official state business. 

“Political teams in government often straddle both public service and political roles and interests,” he said. “The idea that they disaggregate government business from other communications and create a parallel selective record in real time, simply isn’t credible.”

The problem of blurred guidelines and disclosure has been brewing for months. In July, the government lost a legal challenge seeking the right to redact notebooks, diaries and WhatsApp messages belonging to Johnson that had been requested by the inquiry.

Rishi Sunak, the current prime minister, also failed to hand over WhatsApp messages dating back to his period as chancellor during the pandemic, claiming he had changed his phone several times. 

Yet the inquiry has still amassed a vast amount of data. This week its chief counsel Hugo Keith KC said it had received 250 separate WhatsApp groups from over 24 people in addition to thousands of pages of one-to-one exchanges.

He concluded that in light of the large number of materials “there are unlikely to be any hidden corners that have escaped the inquiry’s examinations”.

The politicians and officials at the centre of the controversy have defended their actions insisting the rules were followed.

The Scottish government maintains that using WhatsApp messages is “not the culture” of its ministers and that it has co-operated fully with the inquiry. Deputy Scottish first minister Shona Robison said on Tuesday that the government in Edinburgh had handed over more than 19,000 documents.

She told the Scottish parliament that the government, having received a formal legal order from the inquiry, would share over 14,000 messages, mostly on WhatsApp, including those from ministers and former ministers.

Meanwhile, Sturgeon has already made three submissions running to 200 pages, her spokesperson said.

Reynolds told the inquiry there was an increase in the use of WhatsApp during the early days of the pandemic to reflect the shift to remote working during lockdown. 

He played down the idea that serious government business was regularly taking place on the app, suggesting that most messages were “ephemeral”.

“A lot of the WhatsApps you are seeing . . . are exchanges which people could have been doing previously by telephone or in corridors,” he said.

But that argument was challenged by Samuel Kasumu, a former Downing Street adviser, who said: “There is no way that Martin can honestly say that big decisions were not made by WhatsApp — that is a lie.”

Keith, the lead counsel, also suggested that such messages could be “relevant to the debate about Covid” and subsequent decisions.

Many special advisers, backbench MPs and front-benchers have their WhatsApp set so that messages auto-disappear after 24 hours, seven days or 90 days.

The government advice is that “disappearing message” functions are allowed, in part to prevent the build-up of mail, so long as this does not damage “record-keeping or transparency”.

But Lilly of the IfG said anyone with weekly auto-delete would have to upload any relevant messages to a centralised system every six days. 

She said the government could mandate a longer minimum length of time for the disappearing function — for example three or six months. 

But for all the controversy, an array of colourful messages have still emerged this week which may never have seen the light of day in a pre-smartphone era.

James Price, director of government relations at the Adam Smith Institute, said “disappearing messages are a useful tool for creating and maintaining trust” between ministers and advisers.

“If ministers don’t feel they can get candid and discreet and secure advice, it will inevitably lead to much more difficult decision-making and a diminution of our politics,” he said.