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Reaction: ICO confirms investigation into gov use of personal email

Recently we wrote a short blog on the use of personal email in government and its impact on transparency and we now welcome the fact that the ICO is opening up an investigation into its use.

Increasingly, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) seems to have been viewed by some politicians as an obstacle or a hindrance rather than a tool for transparency where citizens are able to understand how their country is run and where their taxes are being spent. To name a couple of examples, the new ‘Advanced Research & Invention Agency’ (ARIA)has been exempted from the FOIA, whilst David Cameron backtracked on promising to be one of the most transparent governments, to claiming FOI as being one of the ‘clutteration’ and ‘buggeration’ factors that impeded the process of governing.

Whilst many of us may accidentally use our personal email addresses instead of work addresses, recently leaked Department of Health meeting minutes alleged that the former health secretary, Matt Hancock, only deals with his Private Office via Gmail. If this is true, then we have to ask why someone would choose to completely avoid using their work email in favour of their personal email address, particularly when it is going to make the work of civil servants in the FOI field much harder.

Correspondence via personal email channels is much easier to ‘lose’, ‘delete’, or ‘misplace’. Whilst there may be a good reason for using personal email channels, the overriding feeling and wider speculation is that it is done to avoid any form of scrutiny.

Upon opening the investigation, Elizabeth Denham, UK Information Commissioner, confirmed that using personal email doesn’t break any current FOI or Data Protection rules:

“To be clear, the use of private correspondence channels does not in itself break freedom of information or data protection rules. But my worry is that information in private email accounts or messaging services is forgotten, overlooked, autodeleted or otherwise not available when a freedom of information request is later made.”

This is perhaps a flaw in the FOIA that needs addressing, and may well be addressed following the results of the ICO investigation. It could well be that there is nothing sinister in the former health secretary’s use of his personal email address, but by allegedly using it exclusively, it creates a clear barrier to FOI investigation and transparency.

The results of the ICO’s investigation into this are very important as it would, on the surface seem to represent a potentially concerted effort to block transparency and undermine democracy.

Elizabeth Denham goes on to describe transparency as 'fundamental' to democracy as, only with this can we truly trust those making decisions. We hope that any findings are backed by actions and recommendations that will ensure transparency and trust are maintained.

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