Woeful record keeping by Scottish Government on WhatsApp demands reform

The revelation six Scottish ministers have used WhatsApp in the past year for government business is a concerning but unsurprising development.

WhatsApp is universally used in politics by party staffers, politicians and journalists to communicate. This is not new, but its use within the UK Government has been subject to controversy, and leaks from WhatsApp groups of MPs has often led the political agenda in Westminster.

The extent of its use among ministers in Scotland, however, has always been unclear. During the Alex Salmond inquiry and the negotiations with Scottish Green MSPs around the co-operation agreement, ministers said not one of them had used WhatsApp in this period.

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Now we know, however, six have used it in the past year, including Scotland’s most senior law officers, the Lord Advocate and Solicitor General.

There is no suggestion there has been any inappropriate use of the app, yet. One only has to look at the Greensill Capital lobbying scandal or Boris Johnson’s use of WhatsApp during Covid to know where abuses could lie.

What is more concerning, however, is the Scottish Government is failing miserably at adequately recording the use of the app. Ministers are required to ensure any government business is appropriately recorded by passing on WhatsApp messages to policy area officials.

This is then recorded by civil servants within the corporate records system of the Government.

But wait, why is it that ministers, the very people who could benefit from the use of personal WhatsApp messages to conceal information or critical thought-processes, or direct lobbying, are the ones who must take the initiative to decide what is and what is not government business? Ministers also admit to deleting WhatsApp messages regularly in a way that does not happen with email or paper.

Humza Yousaf is the most high profile minister to use WhatsApp for government business.

Concerningly, officials said WhatsApp messages on government business would be retained as text in emails or, absurdly, within word documents. The knowledge these discussions were had over WhatsApp is not retained. The medium does not matter.

But, of course, it does. Where decisions are made inform how they were made. They tell us what information ministers had in front of them when key choices are made. This results in a fundamentally skewed relationship with appropriate scrutiny and one lost in time in the analogue era.

Reform is badly needed.

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