FOIMan wonders if 90 day retention of email by the Cabinet Office is a conspiracy, or if it could be a (clumsy) attempt at governance.
The FT has a piece this morning stating that the Cabinet Office routinely deletes email after 90 days. It argues that this is evidence of the Cabinet Office deliberately avoiding FOI. Cue outraged voices from all quarters.
However, this may not be the dark conspiracy that everyone supposes. Email causes significant problems for those responsible for managing information in all organisations. Despite the fact that it has been around for years, there is no generally accepted approach to managing it. Records management consultant James Lappin wrote a really good piece a couple of years ago outlining the options and their shortcomings. Amongst them is the option of automatically deleting email after a short period.
The argument in favour of this policy is that most email is ephemeral. Keeping it all forever isn’t an option for various reasons (including data protection requirements). But some emails are important records. What you need is to identify a way to encourage staff to file the important emails. But staff tend to put off filing. So the aim of the 90 day retention policy is to force staff to file key email because if they don’t it will be gone forever.
There are of course weaknesses with this policy. Staff may still fail to file things and then they are lost. It is usually easy for staff to find ways to get round the policy by creating folders and moving all their email into them in bulk before the 90 days is up. Their intention is to get round to weeding and filing them at some point but it never happens. As the FT article demonstrates, the policy can be readily misinterpreted. But it is a policy widely adopted because at least it is an attempt to manage the chaos of the email server.
My understanding is that this policy was adopted by many government departments in 2004. It was a policy that we adopted at the Greater London Authority possibly at my suggestion (it’s a long time ago). The intention – at least on my part – was to manage email, not to bypass FOI. As I’ve previously argued, retaining everything would be impractical – it might even reduce the likelihood of information being disclosed, as the section 12 limit would more often be an issue. And I should be clear – the intention was never that all emails would be deleted; it was to encourage staff to take action by identifying and keeping the emails that were formal records. My strong suspicion is that staff in the Cabinet Office are encouraged to do the same. This is not about deleting ALL emails; staff should be saving emails which document key decisions within whatever records management system is in place within the Cabinet Office.
One of the reasons I advocated it was that it was a policy which had been adopted by a previous employer. That employer wasn’t in the public sector, and didn’t face the prospect of receiving FOI requests. I saw it as a legitimate and established way to address the management of email.
None of this is to say that the policy hasn’t become a convenient way for the Cabinet Office to avoid having to answer certain questions. As a policy it has significant weaknesses and it is not necessarily one which I would advocate now. Given the complaints made by the officials quoted by the FT, the approach doesn’t seem to be working well for the Cabinet Office’s staff (although it’s also possible that those quoted ignored the instructions they were given on email filing). If I was advising the Cabinet Office (not very likely, I grant you), I would be advocating a different approach, not least because of the obvious reputational harm that it is causing.
As I’ve written before, records managers do need to consider the political ramifications of their advice and policies. But my strong suspicion is that the 3 month email policy was not – at least initially – proposed as a way to avoid FOI. It was just one of many options for managing email – and every single approach that I’ve ever used or read about has its shortcomings.