Dutch PM promises improvement after critical report on text message archiving
For years, the Ministry of General Affairs did not store Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s text messages well enough, the Government Information and Heritage Inspectorate ruled in a critical report. The Ministry archived the messages according to a “government-wide instruction,” but not always according to the law on archiving government documents (Archives Act). The way in which they stored the texts also led to data loss. The Ministry will investigate where the instruction for saving texts should be adjusted, Prime Minister Mark Rutte said in response.
The Inspectorate investigated the handling of Rutte’s text messages after a lawsuit about government documents during the coronavirus pandemic revealed that Rutte himself deleted plenty of text messages. In an emergency debate about that revelation in May, Rutte said he still “meets the spirit and the letter of the law.” He added, “I also fully comply with the regulation on the retention of chat messages.”
A strong archiving system is considered to be essential for future accountability about matters and choices.
In its report, the Government Information and Heritage Inspectorate concluded that Rutte “almost always” forwards received text messages (in his case, primarily SMS) to a civil servant, but not always his sent messages. When choosing which messages to then store in the archive, Rutte and his officials acted according to the guideline, “but not always via the archive law.” That was partly because Rutte did not forward all his messages and partly because his officials “made too strict a selection.”
When forwarding chat messages, it is no longer possible to see when Rutte received the message. Sometimes messages were saved in the form of screenshots, which also entailed data loss. Rutte’s ministry does not yet have a better working method, and according to the Inspectorate, it will have to make better agreements. The Inspectorate cannot verify how often the Ministry did not save Rutte’s texts, while this should have been possible according to the law. “After all, many chat messages have been deleted.”
According to the Inspectorate, the Ministry’s problems with archiving are broader than just Rutte’s texts. The department does not meet all the preconditions for good archiving. Two important functions for information management are vacant. Moreover, arbitrariness threatens because there is no “overarching vision.”
The Inspectorate also called for more clarity about the archiving rules. The Cabinet must tackle the government-wide instruction and clarify what falls under the Archives Act.
Rutte promised that his Ministry would investigate how to adjust its archiving. Pending that investigation, “the chat messages of the other Cabinet Ministers will also be kept at their Ministries for security and archiving purposes.”
Rutte’s Ministry “completely adopts” the Inspectorate’s recommendations, the Prime Minister said in a letter to parliament. Several suggestions have already been implemented “or are currently being implemented,” others will be addressed shortly.
The government commissioner for information management and the Advisory Board on Public Access and Information Management are also looking into this matter. The Advisory Board expects to provide advice on information management and the retention of documents before the end of the year.
State Secretary Gunay Uslu (Culture and Media) is working on amending the archives Act and will take the recommendations from the Inspectorate into account, she said through her spokesperson. She will also look at the recommendations of the Advisory Board on Public Access ad Information Management. But her spokesperson expects these to be about implementation rather than the law itself.
Reporting by ANP