Just weeks before the United Kingdom, under Prime Minister Tony Blair, adopted a Freedom of Information (FOI) act, the Prime Minister’s office conveniently adopted a policy of its own: Automatically deleting emails more than three months old.
In what government accountability campaigners have described as “not a coincidence,” the resulting system descended into a “dysfunctional” mess, according to those who worked uder it.
The system to bypass public accountability is still in place. Under the likely-illegal policy, workers can only retain email beyond three months if they specifically move it out of their inbox and into an official archive, usually accomplished by dragging it, or a copy, into local storage on the user’s computer.
Former special adviser to Nick Clegg Sean Kemp described how staffers now “delete their emails on an almost daily basis, others just try to avoid putting anything potentially interesting in an email in the first place.”
A special adviser told the Financial Times that the policy caused confusion, with senior officials reporting to IT staffers that their emails kept ‘disappearing,’ yet this was precisely the intent.
Staff were also unable to agree on the details of meetings which vanished due to automatic deletion. One former Downing Street official described the problem as “hugely frustrating.”
The director of the UK Campaign for Freedom of Information Maurice Frankel said that the fact the policy was instituted only a few days before the FOI Act came into law in January 2005 indicates that the timing “very strongly indicates that it was not a coincidence.”
Politicians hiding their dirty dealings from the public is nothing new, with President Obama’s administration doing the very same thing in March of this year, when it excluded the White House from FOIA regulations, outraging transparency campaigners.
Mr. Obama, who promised greater transparency for the President’s office yet ran the most secretive administration in the history of the United States, and his UK counterpart Tony Blair, view Freedom of Information requests as a “weapon” for journalists, according to sources.
It remains unclear as to just how, exactly, they would like to be accountable to their citizens, if at all.