UK Government Instituted Automatic Email Deletion Program Right Before Its Freedom Of Information Law Came Into Effect

from the AUTOBURY dept

Loads of politicians continue to skirt the requirements of open records laws by using personal email accounts to handle official business. Others simply implement voluntary/poorly defined data retention policies that ensure nothing of interest will be handed over to the public. Given a short enough retention period, any request can be stonewalled until the autodestruct has rendered responsive files unavailable.

This is what the UK government is doing. Tony Blair, the prime minister behind the implementation of the UK's Freedom of Information laws, has publicly lamented ever inviting the public into the conversation. It now appears they'll still be mostly excluded from any email correspondence. (via slashdot)

Weeks before Tony Blair’s Freedom of Information (FOI) act first came into force, Downing Street adopted a policy of automatically deleting emails more than three months old, resulting in a system described by those who worked under it as ‘dysfunctional’. Campaigners have described the timing of the IT policy as ‘not a coincidence’.
Any emails retained past this point have to be saved by the recipient. The deletion system works so efficiently and thoroughly that some government employees thought they'd been issued faulty devices.
One former permanent secretary told the newspaper that he thought there were problems with his BlackBerry when he noticed his emails kept disappearing.
The public might call this system opacity at its finest. But it's apparently not all that popular with those on the inside, either. It's one thing to be on the outside and attempting to peer in with a stack of FOI requests. It's quite another when government employees often experience email-induced early-onset dementia. The "90 Days or it's Deleted!" policy has been referred to as "extremely frustrating," especially when no one's able to verify what was agreed upon in meetings held only three months ago.

On top of 10 Downing Street's disappearing act, there's a concerted effort by other staffers and lawmakers to keep emails out of the public's hands. Some delete theirs almost immediately after reading. Others avoid discussing anything "interesting" in official emails.

The problem obviously traces back to Blair's hesitant implementation of the law. A promise of new openness was immediately undercut by a deliberate email retention policy change. When the leadership openly regrets and resents new avenues of accountability, the rank-and-file will only be more than happy to follow. In his memoirs, Blair called the FOI law a "weapon" in the hands of "journalists," showing just how deep-seated the government's disdain for openness actually is.

There's not a government on the planet that welcomes the scrutiny of the public. Fortunately, some legislators have recognized this as an unhealthy attitude. The battle over the freedom of information didn't end with FOI laws. It was only the beginning. The UK government -- like ours -- still has plenty of "weapons" of its own to deploy in the interest of opacity. Destruction of "retention" policies, easily-abused exemptions, stonewalling, disingenuous search efforts, exorbitant fulfillment fees -- all of these are the tools the government uses to remain in its natural vampiric state of living off the income of others while recoiling from the sunlight.

Filed Under: email, email deletion, foia, freedom of information, retention, tony blair, uk


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  1. icon
    That One Guy (profile), 25 Jun 2015 @ 4:40am

    I admire their restraint

    Honestly it must have been insanely tempting to put off implementing the automatic email deletion program until the very day after the FOI law went into effect, just to make it all the more clear that law or not, they still found the idea that they actually answer to the public to be downright hilarious.

    But no, they put it into place several weeks beforehand in order to pretend that the two had nothing to do with each other, and in the process showing remarkable restraint in only giving the public a single one-finger salute, rather than using both hands as they could have.

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