How the way Whitehall and Westminster communicates — and chronicles — information is changing
Knowledge and Information Management has always been the poor relation of the data professions in government. KIM lacks the buzzworthiness of AI, record-keeping the relative informational glamour of big data, open data, and data science.
But it’s now Having A Moment, in spirit if not explicitly in name, with lots of recent discussion (and various articles) about ‘government by WhatsApp’. All thanks to assorted stories about ‘transparency’, Dom’s data dump and an exceptionally unlucky run of defective government phones. (You think they might have done something about the procurement process.)
WhatsApp wasn’t a thing when I worked in politics proper back in 2012–13. The nearest we got was using Blackberry Messenger — then best-known for its use in the 2011 riots — to coordinate the deputy leader of the Labour Party getting into, speaking at, and out of 10–15 different events a night at 2012 Labour Party conference, flanked by us, her staff, to avoid any deflection off course (a practice known as ‘motorcading’). (Ed Miliband’s team used radios and earpieces. I’ll let you decide who looked cooler.)
The medium isn’t the message, but it fundamentally shapes the way we relate to information and how we communicate. So, what makes WhatsApp different to other methods of communication? And what are the consequences for government? Here are some rough thoughts in a probably futile attempt to get a handle on this huge issue — comments welcome, and it’s something some excellent IfG colleagues are currently thinking about, too.
- Periodicity From seventeenth century villagers asking ‘what news?’ of visitors, to newspapers three times a week then daily, to the telegraph, to radio, to television, to 24 hour news, to social media, the transmission of information has sped up to the point where we are always on. WhatsApp brings instantaneity and an irregular, reactive rhythm* to information which can be difficult to ignore. On the plus side, you may be able to get the information you want and the answer you need quickly, but bombarding decision-makers with information and inquisition might lead to an expectation of rapid decisions (made without reflection), or decision fatigue.
- Ease of use Combine that instantaneity with user-friendly interfaces and the fact you can pull WhatsApp out of your pocket, and you have a tool that people want to use. That ease might invite a stream of consciousness rather than any rationalisation or prioritisation of information, overwhelming the recipient (see rapid decisions and decision fatigue, above).
- Convergence Media policy wonks were very exercised by this in the early 2000s, as the internet blurred the boundaries between previously distinct text, audio and visual content (broadcasters publishing print! Newspapers broadcasting!). We now barely remark on it (which says something in itself). The appeal of platforms like WhatsApp that allow us to easily share different types of information is obvious.
- Disintermediation On the subject of noughties media wonk buzzwords… this was a big one: online self-publishing, social media etc suddenly allowed individuals and institutions — that had once relied on the media to get their message across — to communicate directly with the public. It applies here in politicians, lobbyists and the like being able to communicate directly without having to go through diary secretaries, official minuting or government servers.
- Fragmentation Not unrelated is the fragmentation of communication and information across multiple different conversations, platforms and devices. A challenge for accountability — but also being able to find the information you need.
- Many-to-many interaction WhatsApp offers one-to-one conversation, but also many-to-many with overlapping groups. This can institutionalise originally random groups, excluding people inadvertently (or very advertently). It may also increase the chance of messages being leaked (and encourage performative contributions in the expectation that they might be — see various Tory MP group chats**).
- The fact it’s a technology at all A lot of schemes and salacious gossip would previously have been shared in person (or perhaps over the phone), rather than being recorded on WhatsApp and other platforms. There is an argument that this could lead to greater accountability: in the same way some say using artificial intelligence and algorithms in decision-making forces processes to be written down and cognitive biases to be unpicked, communications being written out could make decisions and discussions easier to scrutinise. But, well, no. See ‘disintermediation’, above, as well as encryption and deletion (whether deliberate or because of different subscription plans — e.g. Slack). Also, who’s doing the ‘recording’? WhatsApp is an infrastructure provided by a private company, Facebook. A friend tweeted at some point in 2020 that they couldn’t remember the last conversation they’d had that wasn’t moderated by a tech company. The ease of use and ubiquity makes that fact very easy to forget.
- Public vs private, ephemeral vs eternal Discussions have raged about the porous borders between private and public ever since social media became a thing. It’s more obvious with something like Facebook or Twitter — posting content that’s partly within semi-closed networks but also more widely accessible — but it’s similar with WhatsApp, given how big some groups can be and the propensity in politics to leak some of the discussions. Not unrelated is the contradiction in such content being ephemeral — quickly forgotten (or even deleted) as the conversation moves on — and eternal, forever findable (and screenshottable).
All of these factors lead to interesting dynamics. What is the intent, incentive, context behind every seemingly throwaway message (‘speech act’ if you want to be technical)? They may be very different for all those group chat participants (one wants a conversation, the other wants a screenshot leaked). Look at some of the Cummings/Johnson exchanges: the former seems keen to discuss (and document) detail (and as much of it as possible), the latter to move on. Advisers can advise at length; politicians have decisions to make.
Two participants having very different intentions in and impressions of the same private conversation, which is then shared more widely, feels like a particular form of context collapse. This is where the new audiences may fail to appreciate the original context, having no idea what else was going on at the time or what the different participants were thinking. The internet is flat. But it is simultaneously very hilly, sheltering niche and expert groups ready to pore over each and every political detail. They may see deeper meaning in the disposable, intent in the incidental, cause in the casual. Something that appears black and white may actually be many shades of grey.
The above is a mass of contradictions and tensions. Platforms like WhatsApp are private and used to avoid accountability — but can sometimes end up being very public. Fleeting, but fixed, in how they formalise informal groups; instant, but indelible, turning throwaway remarks into tablets of stone. With endless messages but no official record, there is both a deluge of information and a drought.
All of this will shape how we do politics. What will be the effect of more information, more quickly, on decision making? (Especially given the more general rush to real time data and dashboards in government at the moment.)
But the most obvious and urgent challenge is the attempt to use apps like WhatsApp to circumvent rules and regulations around public records and freedom of information.
I did some work earlier this year with Lie Detectors. They help young people navigate news and misinformation, and introduced me to a useful phrase: kids will always find the back of the digital bike sheds. As soon as you’ve understood how they’re using one social network, they’ll move to another (increasingly, image-based ones which make it more difficult to search, spot and counter disinformation etc). This isn’t what everyone in government is doing by using particular apps — these are useful tools, people want to use them, like civil servants communicating across departments on Slack — but it’s difficult to shake the sense that some are looking for ways round the rules. And it’s not difficult to imagine which bike shed might be next — perhaps messaging apps which pride themselves on privacy and non-tech-giant origins, which block screenshots, for example.
This is obviously a problem. For all the benefits these information technologies bring, they are creating real challenges for knowledge management, communication and accountability. It would be naïve as well as impossible to ignore that.
But this isn’t just about the technology. It’s about enforcing rules and standards that already exist. A lot of existing information legislation, from public records to freedom of information, is neutral about the method of communication and clear that government business is subject to the rules, the archives, the FoI requests. It applies to government business conducted on WhatsApp and similar platforms. Exemptions already exist to ensure some private policy spaces. The practices — registering these contacts and conversations, thinking about how to archive them — will need some adapting, but the principles are clear. Where there are uncertainties — ministerial meeting rules don’t necessarily cover virtual calls, for example — make them certain.
Government clearly needs to think more seriously about information management. But perhaps we all need to think more seriously about how to deal with a government that apparently finds it easier to ignore the rules than it does messages on WhatsApp.
*As opposed to a regular, reliable one.
**Right on cue…