Post-It notes and the end of written history

Sir Gus O'Donnell, David Cameron and Nick Clegg Under current rules we will not find out what the joke is for 30 years

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The public would once have had to wait 30 years to find out the definitive answers to such questions. Long enough to ensure that all of the people involved were safely retired from public life.

This could soon be changing.

One of the last acts of the previous Labour government was to scrap the 30-year rule, in favour of a 20-year period of secrecy.

The new coalition government is currently deciding when the legislation, which follows a review of secrecy rules by a committee chaired by Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre, will come into effect.

When it does, it could revolutionise the way history is written in the UK, opening up the recent past to previously unseen levels of scrutiny.

But there is a fear among some historians that the expected treasure trove of policy documents and correspondence between ministers might not be worth the paper it is printed on.

Post-It notes

In place of candid policy briefings, indiscreet notes and full and frank minutes, of the kind that have shed so much light on previous eras, they fear the official record of what is going on in government today will be a succession of bland statements of the obvious and uncontroversial.

The reason for this, they fear, is that ministers and officials are so worried about leaks to newspaper and premature disclosure through the Freedom of Information Act that they have simply stopped writing things down.

Start Quote

Some of the more indiscreet communications that have been found in official publications might not be there for the future”

End Quote Oliver Morley Acting chief executive, National Archives

In a recent lecture on document disclosure to the Friends of the National Archive, barrister and historian Jonathan Sumption QC said he had asked senior civil servant friends, who had recently retired, about their record-keeping practices.

"With one exception, every one of them admitted to having omitted significant information from internal documents, which in earlier times would have been included, and to having communicated them informally instead, so that they would not be recorded in writing.

"One of them remarked that in some departments it was quite common for politically sensitive matters to be omitted from documentary records and recorded only on marginal notes written on Post-It stickers, which could be removed and binned after the right people had seen it," said Mr Sumption.

In the question and answer session that followed Mr Sumption's lecture, one member of the audience, a civil servant, suggested even Post-It notes were seen as too risky by some officials.

The reason traditionally given for all this secrecy is that government could not function without it. Ministers and officials must be free to discuss issues frankly and kick around ideas without them being splashed across the newspapers and written up as "splits" or "gaffes".

'Document-heavy age'

Speaking after his lecture, Mr Sumption, one of the country's leading commercial barristers who is best known for representing the government at the 2004 Hutton inquiry, said a "panic" had swept Whitehall when the Freedom of Information Act came into force.

He argued that it was an irrational fear, as the FOI does not extend to the sort of highly-sensitive material covered by the 30 year rule.

But he also suggested that earlier disclosure of government documents - along with a greater tendency towards leaks and ministers publishing their memoirs - was damaging the official record.

"It is a pity that we still live in a document-heavy age but we run the risk that, although numerous, the documents will not be as well worth reading," said Mr Sumption.

National Archives The National Archives are home to an increasing digital treasure trove

Oliver Morley, acting chief executive of the National Archive, agreed that officials and ministers were not writing things down in the way that they used to.

"There is evidence that ministers, civil servants and officials more generally have been much more sensitive about what they put down on paper," he told BBC News.

"Some of the more indiscreet communications that have been found in official publications might not be there for the future."

But, he argued, greater transparency was a good thing and although the official records might not be as interesting as they used to be as a result, it will be more than made up for by the vast treasure trove of e-mail correspondence.

"The huge volume of the digital record will provide rewarding material for the canny researcher."

He highlighted recent indiscretions by politicians on Twitter as an example of the sort of material that could be waiting in store. The only problem, for the National Archive is how to capture and store it all.

The National Archive keeps a percentage of the e-mails sent between officials and ministers and stores them for future public perusal in the same way that it does with written material.

It is currently trying to figure out a way of deciphering what is relevant in the thousands of e-mails sent each day from, as Mr Morley puts it, "people deciding to meet at the football".

When they do, the historians of 2030 could be in for a field day.

Here is a selection of your comments:

The pressures of FoIs and proactive disclosure definitely affect the way we do business, I have never known it any other way, and so take it for granted that sensitive e-mails may be accompanied by a much fuller explanation by phone, and most key ministerial decisions are made on a post it, or in a marginal note, which is translated for e-mail - and the original scrapped. The official record still exists, but if you want gossip you'll just have to use the old fashioned method of buying brandy for retired manderins. Incivil, Edinburgh

Instant messaging is often used for the same reason. Anon

We now speak in the language Taushiro during meetings. It is suppose to be the rarest language on Earth. It took a good few months to perfect it but now we can sleep easily at night. Civil servant, London

As a lawyer for a local authority, I actively encourage people to delete their emails so that they're not disclosable when an FOI request is submitted. Good to see that the civil service is doing the same thing.... Jenna, London

Ah, the minutes of a meeting!! They have long not been minutes, ie, a written record of what was said, they are now a collections of statements of what meeting attendess wanted to say. All frivolous comments have gone, all questionable dialogue removed. Why? Because they fear it will be held against them, either publically, internally or a collection of both! Draft minutes are oftten e-mailed around for comments to be added before they are published ... it makes the whole process incredibly lenghty and ultimately inaccurate (especially if you title the document as "minutes"). I'm not sure how, but it's probably Labour's fault!! Dave, Nottingham, UK

"...although the official records might not be as interesting as they used to be as a result, it will be more than made up for by the vast treasure trove of e-mail correspondence." Er, no. It's been drummed into us that emails also form part of the "official record" in that they are potentially subject to the data laws: if you have to disclose something that's in a document, you'd also have to disclose it if it's in an email. For example, I have taken to using phrases such as "this correspondent" or initials rather than actual name whose owner could ask to see what we have on him/her. Another Civil Servant London, UK

Of course! The rule is: If you can't say it at a conference then don't say it at all. OddityServant

I'm a local councillor. When e-mails were first introduced by our council we used them for often informal correspondance amongst ourselves. Then one day a disgruntled councillor made the contents of one e-mail public. The media made the usual mountain out of a non-existant molehill and the councillor got some political points scored. Result, we now use private phones, or talk over a pint. Freedom of information shouldn't mean freedom to abuse but arguably in many cases thats exactly what it has achieved; and it has to be said, the media are largely responsible for feeding off that. Andy Powell, Bideford, England

This is the continued cycle where many don't seem realise the full detail where even a conversation is a matter of record. Tribunals, select committees and enquiries all tap into the wealth of record (either written or not written). That a decision is made and there is no apparent record of why the decisions were made or the work that went into is in itself an admission that the record should exist. If it does not then clearly something is wrong. This means that the cycle will inevitably introduce stricter legal measures (as with financials) to start to fine and punish those that dont keep the necessary records. Not having a record is not the same as it was discussed but not recorded and is inadmissable. Look to other areas of law and common sense (please!) to work this stuff out. Why have a sanitised and spun version of the truth when we are all more mature and adult and seek the truth. You make a decision and are responsible for something then see that responsibility through. If you are hiding something or withholding something and it goes wrong then you will be found out anyway. I am shocked if that is truly legal advice provided within a local authority. Anyway, we can't afford the inefficient and expensive processes to then prise the truth out of people so legislation will force them to do so anyway, and no record will in itself become the offence. Public Sector Bod, Maidstone, Kent

Sir Humphrey Appleby was right: "the fact is that the movement to "open up" government, if successful, always achieves a gratifying increase in level of secrecy. The reason is obvious. Once a meeting - Parliament, local council, Cabinet - is opened up to the public, it is used by those attending as a propaganda platform and not as a genuine debating forum. The true discussions take place privately in smaller informal groups. In government these smaller groups often contain one or more senior civil servants, so that some element of intelligence and practicability can be built into proposals before they become public and have to be defended with arguments which represent a victory of personal pride over commonsense. So the move to greater openness in public affairs has greatly strengthened the level of secrecy and therefore the quality of decision-making in the higher echelons of government." Dave

A rather more worrying concern for historians and archivists is whether today's emails and other electronic records will be accessible at all in 20-30 years time. Computer systems change over time and compatibility between systems is not guaranteed. We may find in 2050 or whenever that it is easier to read the Domesday book than electronic records from 2010. John, New Malden, UK

This sort of thing has been going on for years. I had a boss who never gave written references but would phone them through. These were often rejected by the recipient which meant you were often ruled out of a job because of this. He always had an unhealthy attitude to never doing wrong and not taking any risks or upsetting his bosses with anything but what they wanted to hear. In later years he ended up never leaving his office after alienated all his colleagues. He was eventually driven out from his CE role and given 10 minutes to leave the building with an escort. I was well retired by then but you can bet I still had a broad smile on my face when I heard that. They say you reap what you sow. beegordon, Shrewsbury UK

How about being open, honest and transparent when you are a civil servant? Its not hard, and guess what? You don't have to cover your tracks! After all, Civil servants are there to serve the public, so all information about their jobs should be freely available to the public. Anon

Jenna, if a lawyer tried to tell me that simply deleting an email would render it "non-disclosable" when an FOI request is submitted then that would be the last bit of advice they ever gave my organisation. There will be a copy on the sender's mail server, a copy on each recipient's mail server ( if using different servers ) and of course you have no control about who other recipients forward those emails to. You must be considered it 'public information' from the point you click on the send key. Think before you click. Graham, West Bromwich

I work in local government, and have just changed employers after 4 years. In going, I cleared and deleted about 10,000 emails, and kept only about 20. If it was really useful it was put on file along the way. The real problem for history will be info-glut with email. The fear in writing/keeping things is of leaks in the present, not posterity. A lot of people can access and read files (and the "worst" offenders can be the elected reps themselves) and then mis-use info for a personal agenda, but the skills/care of those supervising is often not up to the task to ensure proper privacy and security. I also sticky tape post-it notes to the document if there is useful info (eg an instruction from the CEO) and these days have it scanned into the e-document system - maybe other public servants do the same ? anthony ogle, Sydney Australia

It is telling that so many insightful comments are anonymous. Surely though this is not an issue for historians to lament but anyone who wants to live in a democracy. How can we hold our representatives accountable if we have no idea how they make decisions? I understand the fear of the media blowing a casual comment out of proportion or out of context Jim Noble, London

I like the way that "How about being open, honest and transparent when you are a civil servant? Its not hard, and guess what? You don't have to cover your tracks! After all, Civil servants are there to serve the public, so all information about their jobs should be freely available to the public. " was posted by "Anon"! Helen

Fully open, transparent government is not government at all. We all require a certain amount of opaque for the greater good if nothing else. Simon, london

What on earth is a newspaper editor, i.e. Paul Dacre doing chairing a review committee? If he could have it his way we wouldn't have to wait at all. I for one am glad to see the back of Mr Brooon et al. Talk about pandering to the press. Important information is kept secret for a very good reason! Dave, Coventry

Yes, we need to be more careful, because it makes sense. But we work in mostly paperless offices with online filing systems, and the most popular way of communicating is through email - and I can assure everyone who is wondering, that in my workplace we are not told to leave out the important stuff for post it notes and IM. We're just told to use common sense - and sensitivity! There are security measures and alternative email systems in place for sensitive data.

There is so much paranoia about the Civil Service, but in all honesty, it's not all secret squirrel stuff. We work hard, for below average wage. Our headcount numbers have been cut drastically but they're going to be cut by a further 600,000, our contracts are on the verge of effectively being torn up, and yet the workloads are not getting any less heavy. Really - who would WANT to be a civil servant nowadays? no...didn't think so. Civil Servant, Scotland

responding to Graham: if you dont have an email, how the devil could you disclose it???? Jenna, London

It is sad that we have to be careful about what we write these days just in case someone comes up with a case against you in 20 years time. Records of decisions and policies made should be recorded not every single word, it wastes time and effort to record it all for posterity when it is useless as a historical record. Case in point; just for the sake of posterity, why did you publish the coment from "civil servant"? In 20 years time they will now believe that eveyone spoke Taurshiro instead of English. John, Bedford, Beds

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