How the UK Prime Minister's office gets around Freedom of Information requests

Weeks before the 2005 Freedom of Information Act came into effect, Tony Blair's government instituted a policy of automatically purging all calendar items and emails after three months.

The policy, which causes enormous dysfunction in government and civil service, has been continued by the next two governments, right up to the current day. It means that disputes about what had happened just a few months before cannot be settled unless someone deliberately saved the relevant messages. It's so broken that some senior staff have effectively given up on email.

Tony Blair is on record as hating the Freedom of Information Act, because it is used by journalists as "a weapon" against politicians.

One former permanent secretary told the newspaper that he thought there were problems with his BlackBerry when he noticed his emails kept disappearing.

Emails are only saved beyond three months if an individual saves them, which former Downing Street aides said caused “hugely frustrating” problems over staff having different recollections of what was discussed an agreed at meetings.

Sean Kemp, a former special adviser to Nick Clegg, said: “Some people delete their emails on an almost daily basis, others just try to avoid putting anything potentially interesting in an email in the first place.”

Downing Street accused of deliberate attempt to avoid freedom of information requests as ex-staff reveal 'dysfunctional' automated deletion system [Matt Dathan/The Independent]

(Image: 090331, Tamaki Sono, CC-BY)

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  1. In the walls of the cubicle there were three orifices. To the right of the speakwrite, a small pneumatic tube for written messages, to the left, a larger one for newspapers; and in the side wall, within easy reach of Winston's arm, a large oblong slit protected by a wire grating. This last was for the disposal of waste paper. Similar slits existed in thousands or tens of thousands throughout the building, not only in every room but at short intervals in every corridor. For some reason they were nicknamed memory holes. When one knew that any document was due for destruction, or even when one saw a scrap of waste paper lying about, it was an automatic action to lift the flap of the nearest memory hole and drop it in, whereupon it would be whirled away on a current of warm air to the enormous furnaces which were hidden somewhere in the recesses of the building.

  2. It's a hard problem no matter how you slice it.

    My employer has a fully developed record retention policy (where emails and such are considered records just like any other) - some categories of documents must be retained one year, three years, seven years, the duration of the project plus five years, three years after the employee leaves the organization, the life of the patient plus two years, etc., and all must be securely disposed of (paper shredded, disks wiped or incinerated, etc.) once their retention period is over.

    It's a lot of work but at least feasible when records are in specialized systems (medical record systems, financial software systems and whatnot). But email has everything lumped together and under the control of each individual person. If they auto-deleted messages, they'd delete a ton of stuff that they were supposed to retain and risk making the organization dysfunctional. In fact they don't, which means they retain a ton of stuff that was supposed to have been disposed of years ago and risk breaching someone's privacy by having material they shouldn't.

    You can't win for losing this one.

  3. The more this sort of willful disobedience happens in democracies (e.g. Hillary/State, Dubbya/POTUS), the less and less I happen to believe the politicos, especially as they go on and on about the rule of law, democracy, openness, etc., while simultaneously CYA'ing their communication past. Either they believe in those things and should function accordingly, or they should abandon those talking points entirely.
    Perhaps the advent of massive electronic storage capacity combined with internet communication technologies is showing that, as humans, we're not nearly as good as we'd like all the other humans to believe?

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