FOI, fear and personal emails for public business

 

"It feels wonderful to work free from fear of FOI!!"

This expression of relief came in an email from a civil servant at the business department discussing government matters - but sent from his personal email account to colleagues at their private email addresses.

I have just been provided with a copy of this email and others about internet policy sent through personal accounts. Although written back in October 2008, the issue they illustrate - of the relationship between FOI, official business and private email accounts - is still very much a continuing one.

The message was sent by Geoff Smith, an official at what was then called the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Berr), now the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Geoff Smith email

It dealt with departmental policy towards Nominet, the private company that controls the .uk internet domain and is thus a crucial part of the UK's online operations.

In 2008 the organisation was trapped in a bitter internal dispute. Some involved felt this threatened its ability to fulfil its nationally important responsibilities and could require government intervention.

According to emails seen by the BBC, Mr Smith was one of a group of Berr and Nominet staff who corresponded about Nominet's problems and Berr's position via their personal email accounts.

Some seem to have been worried that earlier official exchanges on these topics could be publicly revealed through freedom of information requests.

In another email obtained by the BBC, Nominet's senior policy adviser Martin Boyle - who had himself only recently worked at Berr - encouraged his former colleagues still at the government department to delete emails because he suspected "a FOI is just around the corner".

Martin Boyle email

Allegations that business department officials used private email addresses to seek to circumvent FOI surfaced in an employment tribunal case involving Nominet, which was first reported last month after legal restrictions were lifted.

BIS and Nominet both declined to comment on the specific content of these emails.

A Nominet spokesperson explained: "It is not our policy to comment on individual emails."

Similarly, a spokesman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) said: "We won't comment on individual cases, or on leaked documents."

He added: "However, our longstanding IT security policy is clear: All official correspondence from BIS must be undertaken from a BIS email account and all breaches of our IT policy are thoroughly investigated. Additionally, the department is fully committed to the Freedom of Information regime, including the latest guidance from the Information Commissioner's Office regarding the use of personal accounts."

Government policy on internet governance is now handled by the culture department rather than BIS.

Gove appeal

In November the Information Rights Tribunal will hear a case concerning the use of private emails by the Education Secretary Michael Gove and his advisers. The Department for Education is appealing against a decision by the information commissioner, who ruled that private email accounts are subject to FOI requests when used for official business.

Last year Chris Graham, the commissioner, made clear his view that, whatever any officials and ministers think, they can't evade the FOI law by using private email.

In other words, if the tribunal upholds his stance, officials and ministers will find that using personal email accounts does not guarantee that they are operating "free from fear of FOI".

 
Martin Rosenbaum, Freedom of information specialist Article written by Martin Rosenbaum Martin Rosenbaum Freedom of information specialist

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  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 24.

    If the tribunal upholds stance, officials & ministers will find that using personal email accounts does not guarantee that they are operating "free from fear of FOI".
    I agree with this policy, especially when email is used for business purposes. Businesses should not conduct in private what they are not prepared to make public.

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 23.

    This issue does seem to be the greyest of grey areas - of course 100% openess is the ideal, but we the public & political opponents espcially, so woefully usunderstand and/or deliberately distort what has been said so too much openess encouarges lack of debate within the system.

    No easy answer, there's big pros and big cons to both systems.....

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 22.

    That's a good point Gabriel but if they blocked them from using personal e-mail at work it would remove any 'I used the wrong account by accident' excuses that we've heard from government advisors. People would get around it (my work firewall blocks it but many use their smartphones) but it would be unequivocal proof that they're breaching confidentiality, and likely their contract of employment.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 21.

    It would seem that Nominet have acted improperly. Further that a Government department have colluded with them .If these participants are content to hide their activities behind a "no comment policy screen" there needs to be a more searching investigation . In the recent employment tribunal case Nominet comments seem to reveal a desire to move on quickly from a case which airs their wrongdoings .

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 20.

    Official correspondence from BIS must be undertaken from a BIS email account. Breaches of our IT policy are thoroughly investigated.
    Here comes the punch-line:
    BIS is FULLY COMMITTED to Freedom of Information REGIME, including the latest guidance from the ICO.
    Does anyone else see the humour of this?

  • Comment number 19.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 18.

    @12. Public employees trying to avoid FoI are effectively conspiring to deceive their employers. The best option would be to block access to personal webmail through the relevant firewalls.

    It is possible that the ICO might rule that business deliberately conducting on an employee's personal e-mail account could become subject to FoI.......

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 17.

    The policy of keeping the public, who pay the wages of these people, in the dark is typical of the contempt these people have for their masters - the public.

    This is utterly appalling and shows why politicians are held in such low regard by the public. They reap as they sow.

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 16.

    At the end of the day for all the justified crap we throw at our politicians & political structures it matters not what these people do or say they'll always be pillored - even if they are merely discussing an idea to reassure themselves it is as much bunkhum as their intital reaction suspected.....word gets out & they get accused of actually trying to impliment a finished idea......

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 15.

    "Politicians and faceless beurocrats in FoI evasion shocker" runs the headline.

    What a surprise that a profession, noted for its lack of honesty and integrity, evasion of questions, secret agendas and general sculdugery should exploit every loophole they can find in the laws that they wrote.

    Its perhaps more surprising that beurocrats also make use of evasion. I wonder what they are hiding.

  • rate this
    -5

    Comment number 14.

    FOI is a useful tool for journalists who don't have any stories to cover. It's used by many to simply try and prove conspiracy theories.

  • rate this
    -4

    Comment number 13.

    @10 "but they can suck it up and learn to trust the public; if proper context can be shown..."

    If anything has been shown it is the fact that the public and media have an irrational hatred of civil servants and the media especially a love for the contextomy. Context will never be preovided, so those of us in governemtn employ quickly learn to be guarded in any official communications.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 12.

    Public employees trying to avoid FoI are effectively conspiring to deceive their employers. The best option would be to block access to personal webmail through the relevant firewalls. Those who wished to get around it could do so but at least make it awkward and obvious that they're going out of their way to breach policies and could lose their jobs (without the customary golden handshake).

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 11.

    #1 private organisations are not subject to FOI and, at least as I understand it, an academy school would definitely be a private organisation is the same way that public schools such as Eton are.

    But have to admit no idea why BBC is not subject to FOI.

    The emails and antics of civil servants using private accounts to avoid FOI is a disgrace and an evasion of the will of parliament

  • rate this
    +6

    Comment number 10.

    For all the criticisms I have of the previous govt, FOI will never be one of them. I can completely understand why civil servants might feel unable to be completely frank in their advice, but they can suck it up and learn to trust the public; if proper context can be shown, everyone will understand. They need to stop being girly-men and let us see what they're up to if they want us to trust them.

  • rate this
    +7

    Comment number 9.

    For me, the key question is why they were doing this, what they were trying to hide, and who from?

  • Comment number 8.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 7.

    If the government collude with a company to break the law, the government are no longer in a position to effectively regulate that company, the government is compromised. The government and Nominet also seem to have colluded in the preparation of their 'no comment' statements. Proponents of secret government should ditch personal email and revert to the bowler hat and park bench!

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 6.

    How about the FOIITAWY Act? (“Freedom Of Information If That’s Alright With You”)

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 5.

    Who'd of thought it, people in Public Office trying to hide what they're up to? I'm sure its all an innocent mistake. Again.

 

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