Image source: GOV.UK, Open Government Licence v3.0
UK Government departments should reduce the need to use non-corporate communications channels (NCCCs) and be prepared to explain and defend the choices when they are used, according to new guidance from the Cabinet Office.
Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Oliver Dowden MP announced the publication of the guidance for using channels such as private email, SMS and WhatsApp for government business.
This comes after a degree of controversy over the use of WhatsApp in communications between government ministers and senior officials, fuelled by the leak of thousands of messages sent by former health minister Matt Hancock MP.
It involves four policy principles:
- Departments should, as far as practicable, enable approaches in their core systems that reduce the need for NCCCs.
- Government communications belong to the Crown and must be handled carefully.
- NCCCs should be used with care and a readiness to explain and defend the choice to do so. This reflects the need to exercise professional judgement appropriate to circumstances.
- All government information has a security classification, the restrictions of which must be observed.
When NCCCs are used on corporate devices it should be with particular care if communicating significant government information, and with discretion if it is logistical or a non-significant type.
If a privately owned and managed device is used there must be exceptional circumstances to justify communicating significant government information and that which requires additional protective controls or behaviours; and the user should pay due regard to security responsibilities.
No information marked ‘secret’ or ‘top secret’ should be shared through NCCCs.
The guidance also includes recordkeeping responsibilities, such as a need to capture significant information in NCCCs into government systems to support accountability, and to consider switching to a government system if unsolicited information becomes significant.
It will all be reviewed by December 2025.
In a statement to Parliament, Dowden said: “The new guidance is aimed at ensuring that the government can use non-corporate communication channels when appropriate while considering the record keeping, transparency, security and data protection implications. It takes account of the information commissioner’s report Behind the screens – maintaining government security in the age of messaging apps.”
The report concluded that there are real risks to transparency and accountability from the use of the apps within government, and called for a review of practices as well as action to ensure improvements.
Information Commissioner John Edwards said that NCCCs could support quick decision making when necessary and help to meet varying demands but should not undermine transparency or security.