How the Cabinet Office’s 90 day email deletion was reported back in 2004

The story that the Financial Times [1] and other newspapers ran last week about the Cabinet Office 90 day email deletion practice is not new.   It was reported on 18 December 2004 by the BBC, two days before the deletions were about to start.   Here is the first part of their report [2]

Screen Shot 2015-06-20 at 13.51.04

I tweeted a link to the BBC report on Saturday .   I received this tweet in reply

Screen Shot 2015-06-20 at 14.10.02

Good question!

Imagine yourself back on the 18 December 2004, a fortnight before the UK’s Freedom of Information Act comes into force. It comes to light that the Cabinet Office, at the very heart of Government, is planning to have all emails that are over 90 days old deleted from their email servers.    In other words they are deleting about ten years worth of correspondence – a portion of which will have been captured elsewhere, but much of which will only have existed on those email servers.   The opposition leader has raised objections.   Why did archivists and records managers not raise this as an issue?

There are four main reasons why archivists/records managers did not object at the time:

  • We had spent the previous ten years warning our organisations about the inconveniences and dangers of records building up in individual email accounts.  We therefore were not minded to defend those records that had built up in Cabinet Office email accounts
  • We did not know what to do with email accounts.  We did not know how we would manage them over time,  how we would deal with the personal data within them, how we would sensitivity review them, what retention rules we could apply to them, nor how we would appraise them as being worthy or unworthy of permanent preservation.  We could not envisage how or when we could make available to the public an email account selected for permanent preservation.
  • Records management in the UK  had  a great year in 2004,  mainly thanks to the Blair government.  During 2004 central  government threw money at electronic records management systems, created lots of new records management posts, employed lots of records management consultants.  It was exciting.  We were not in a mood to question things too closely.
  • On December 18 2004 we were all so focused on the coming of FOI (and perhaps the coming of the Christmas holiday) that we didn’t notice.   I don’t remember even seeing this article, I can’t remember anyone mentioning it to me.

This is an important case with significant implications for records management and archival practice.   We might usefully debate the following questions:

  • Was the mass deletion of  Cabinet Office emails from email servers in December 2004 carried out for political advantage, administrative expediency or for recordkeeping improvement?   Has the Cabinet Office continued that  90 day auto-deletion policy under successive Labour, Coalition and Conservative administrations for political, administrative or recordkeeping reasons?
  • How serious is the impact of these deletions on the historical record?  Is the important correspondence largely captured elsewhere? Or is this 90 day auto-deletion of email by one of the most important Whitehall Departments going to create a significant and irreplaceable gap in our nation’s historical record?
  • Are we as a profession – records managers and archivists – any better equipped to manage email accounts over time now than we were back in 2004?  Is there a feasible alternative to auto-deletion?
  • Should the UK National Archives follow the example of its counterpart in the US and step in to prevent the auto-deletion of significant email accounts by declaring that it requires UK Government departments to select the email accounts of  important civil servants for permanent preservation?

References

[1] Pickard, Jim and Stacey, Kiran  16 June , 2015 8:17 pm  Freedom of information is Mission Impossible for Downing St emails.   Financial Times, ,   available from http://on.ft.com/1QCbS8a (it requires a log-in).  Accessed 17 June 2015    OR see see Morris, Nigel  17 June 2015.  Government faces call to review self destruct email policy http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/government-faces-call-to-review-selfdestruct-email-policy-10327202.html (accessed 20 June 2015).

[2]  BBC News, 18 December 2004, 14:56 GMT.   Howard condemns email deletion. Available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/4107563.stm  (accessed 20 June 2015).

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s