Thanks to media coverage about use of consumer messaging apps WhatsApp and Signal in UK politics, we know that consumer messaging apps are being used within central government in the UK.

We wished to find out the extent of usage of WhatsApp within the UK’s government through the use of a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to a number of Ministerial Departments, London Boroughs, Metropolitan and District Councils.

Research Findings

UK government ministerial departments using WhatsApp

Government organisations are reflecting the wider trend in society towards use of WhatsApp in the workplace, despite it being against WhatsApp’s legal terms of service to use it in ways that involve any non-personal use.

Our key findings from those departments which responded were as follows:

▪ 18% of UK government ministerial departments contacted said that WhatsApp was currently being used within their department

▪ Of those departments that said they were aware that WhatsApp was being used by their staff, 50% had no specific policy to govern its usage

▪ 36% of UK government ministerial departments contacted said that they have a policy or set of guidelines in place that specifically restrict the use of social media messaging platforms (like WhatsApp) for governmental purposes

The variance between knowledge of the usage of WhatsApp by staff, and policies to control these across these government departments was striking.

Whilst the Ministry of Justice's (MoJ) responses said that the Department does not have a specific policy relating to the restriction of social media messaging platforms and that internet usage by staff is governed by the Department’s Internet Usage Policy, the department does have a very detailed policy document specifically in relation to the usage of WhatsApp as a messaging platform, which was published in November last year.

The most detailed response came from the Department of Work and Pension (DWP), which also provided more details and links to both their social media and IT usage policy.

UK Local government departments using WhatsApp

We also contacted local government, making similar requests to County, District, and Metropolitan Councils, Unitary Authorities and Boroughs across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Here are the headline findings:

▪ 27% of UK local government bodies who responded said that WhatsApp is being used within their organisation currently. This is a significantly higher proportion than the respondents within central Government.

▪ Of those councils and local government organisations that said they were aware that WhatsApp was being used by their staff, 35% did not have, or were not aware of, a specific policy to govern its usage.

▪ 42% of UK local government department respondents say that they have a policy or set of guidelines in place that specifically restrict the use of social media messaging platforms (like WhatsApp) for governmental purposes.

▪ Of the local government respondents who said that they have a policy in place to govern usage of messaging apps, only 22% were able to/did provide a copy of this policy, and many of these did not specifically name WhatsApp.

Only one out of over 80 councils that responded – Gedling Borough Council – specifically had a policy of blocking usage of WhatsApp by its staff.

There are 3 main reasons for this research

Consumer messaging apps like WhatsApp, Signal and Telegram are not GDPR compliant

We provide more detail using curated resources from the likes of the Business Continuity Institute and The Irish Times, highlighting WhatsApp’s non-GDPR compliance.

Consumer messaging apps like WhatsApp, Signal and Telegram come with many governance risks when used professionally

Organisations, including government departments have legal obligations around protecting their employees and ensuring adequate levels of oversight, governance and control e.g. to protect against bullying in the workplace, harassment or inappropriate behaviours.

Organisations also need to protect and adequately control access to sensitive commercial information. With WhatsApp many organisations don’t even know what groups exist, let alone who is in them, or whether former employees or contractors still have access to information that they should not.

There is a current obsession with encryption and secrecy in messaging apps in politics

Guild founder and CEO Ashley Friedlein wrote this open letter to UK policymakers and government advisors:  

“We have communicated with letters, emails, web forums, phone calls, meetings, social networks and other platforms to date and none of them are encrypted. So why should messaging be a medium where there are expectations of levels of encryption which make it possible to abrogate responsibility and accountability behind the veils of secrecy and anonymity?”

Any democratic government fixated on secrecy in messaging apps should surely set alarm bells ringing.

What does this WhatsApp research actually mean?

It seems there are potential future issues for central and local government stored up around the use and governance of WhatsApp and alternative consumer messaging apps.

Some UK government departments have clearly considered WhatsApp’s GDPR and governance issues and have issued guidelines for their staff.

But a lack of consistency and shared governance amongst central and local government around the use of consumer messaging apps is evident within the responses.

Media headlines highlighting government use of consumer messaging apps for communications should make us all aware that perhaps that the UK government and advisors are not focusing on the right questions about the use of messaging apps.

That’s why we wrote this open letter to government advisors and policymakers to raise the issue, and hopefully help to develop a more coordinated official policy on the correct use of messaging apps.

We believe Britain is well-placed to take a global lead in defining the policy and the practice around data, privacy and making use of messaging apps, in the right way.
We have also made our Mastering Messaging in the Workplace report free for anyone within or outside the government to use.

It provides a framework for best practice usage of messaging applications, derived from qualitative and quantitative research into how organisations are using this technology right now.

We’d welcome the opportunity to hear from anyone within central or local government who would like to discuss this research.

We’d also be delighted to discuss our open letter about government policy and the right and appropriate use of messaging apps by local and central government representatives in the UK.

If you would like to discuss these research findings please contact us.

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