Microsoft Team chat messages within Scottish Government auto-delete after just five days
Messages sent on the Scottish Government’s most commonly used internal software are auto-deleted after five days, it can be revealed, sparking calls for an overhaul of record-keeping rules. It comes after Nicola Sturgeon refused to answer questions about whether she had deleted WhatsApp messages sent during the pandemic which have since been requested by the UK Covid-19 inquiry. Deputy first minister, Shona Robison, confirmed on Tuesday that at least 14,000 informal messages would be handed to the inquiry following a legally binding request.
This is despite ministers stating it was government policy for WhatsApps to be deleted every month, and First Minister Humza Yousaf stating he had retained his and would be submitting them to the inquiry. Messages sent between civil servants using Microsoft Teams, the most common software used by the Scottish Government, auto-delete within five days.
This is the case for the ‘Chat’ function of the software, used mostly for informal, day-to-day messaging between individuals. However it can also be a group chat, similar to WhatsApp. Microsoft Teams also has a ‘Channel’ function, effectively a digital noticeboard for a selected group of people. Information here is stored for three years.
It was first introduced into the Scottish Government’s IT systems in 2021, during the latter stages of the pandemic, with freedom of information responses stating it is used for “communication supporting colleague engagement and collaboration”
Around 21,000 staff members have access to Microsoft Teams within government, with around 11,000 from the Scottish Government and 10,000 from other public sector organisations. Civil servants are told when using Microsoft Teams that it is not a corporate record and that significant information should be saved on the official record. It is also understood ministers do not regularly use of the chat function, funnelling most correspondence through their private offices.
Critics said the auto-delete approach to messages demonstrated the need for a “complete overhaul” of the government’s record management system. Scottish Conservative chairman, Craig Hoy, called on ministers to “come clean” on how they use Microsoft Teams. He added: “If messages are getting routinely deleted within a week, then crucial information in relation to government decision-making may well have been lost forever.
“There is a shocking culture of secrecy within the SNP Government that all too often keeps the public in the dark. “In light of SNP ministers being forced to finally hand over thousands of WhatsApp messages to the Covid inquiry, Humza Yousaf needs to be upfront about what government business is done on Teams and what the policy is on retaining these messages.”
Dame Jackie Baillie, Scottish Labour’s deputy leader, said the revelation meant “questions are piling up” for the SNP’s “dodgy record keeping”. She said: “The SNP’s shameful handling of Covid records has brought to light a litany of dubious practices and a vague record management policy.
“This secretive government has a long track record of trying to dodge scrutiny and stifle transparency. “It is essential that all government communications are appropriately recorded so there can be proper transparency and accountability in government.”
Leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, Alex Cole-Hamilton, said his party had never received any material from Microsoft Teams via freedom of information requests. He said: “My party's researchers regularly use freedom of information laws to scrutinise and hold the government to account. None of them can ever remember seeing material from Microsoft Teams disclosed. The idea that the government's main messaging platform contains zero publicly disclosable material stretches believability to breaking point.
"The fact that many messages are deleted after just five days will do little for public confidence in how they are governed. Government records management clearly needs a major overhaul. Perhaps it is time for the new Scottish Information Commissioner to launch an investigation into how messaging platforms are used."
The Scottish Government was contacted for comment.