Just weeks before the UK's Freedom of Information Act comes into force, the Cabinet Office has told staff to delete emails that are more than three months old, as of today (20th December). Could this possibly be the same Government that is pushing for a 12 month electronic data retention dragnet throughout Europe? Yes, it could.
It could also be the same Government which just last week lost a minister with the help of a civil service email that was sent over 18 months ago. The fax that the email drew attention to had been destroyed (contrary to the rules), so if we hadn't known about the email because it had been deleted David Blunkett might still be with us. But that wouldn't have happened, because the Cabinet Office assures us that most emails would be copied to a number of officials, and ministers' private offices would ensure that important records are kept.
If it's important someone wise, upstanding and diligent will have stored it, oh yes. The 'nothing to do with the FOIA' claim is similarly convincing.
The measure is ostensibly being brought in because government computer systems are becoming overloaded - not, as was generally thought, because they're wrecked systems presided over by imbeciles, but because people's inboxes are too full. The wrecked nature of the systems is however highlighted by the humorous procedure proposed for retaining emails that might have to be disclosed later. Civil servants (using their own discretion) are instructed to print and file them. In, one presumes, filing cabinets. In October the Cabinet Office told MPs it was unable to say how many information and communications technology specialists it employed, and that it was unable to say how much it had paid the 267 companies and consultancies it had retained since 2001. One begins to grasp why it might not know these things, but has it looked in the filing cabinets?
In addition to starring (or not) in the return of paper-based government administration, deleted emails may also be stored on back-up systems. But in the absence of any policy or rules governing their operation, or even their existence, retrieving important information which may or may not exist from them is likely to prove impossible. One cannot help noticing the striking similarity between the Government's approach and that of a certain large company.
For Government, this simply isn't good enough. At the moment an opt-in system of retention is being imposed as a baseline, and without adequate supervision and oversight that system needs to be underpinned by a more extensive and workable automated archiving system which absolutely removes the possibility of cover-ups. The fact that the Government isn't doing that illustrates how little it grasps about the proper functioning of the systems it claims it's embracing. And if it has its way on retention, it could be sending people to prison for running IT systems this way. ®