Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Thanet Council policy regarding email retention

Thanet Council's email system has cropped up in conversation a few times recently. I'd heard from a few councillors that the council system is awkward and not the easiest to use. Which has lead to many councillors privately stating they prefer to use their own private email accounts for council business. This may recently have changed following a statement of clarification from the Information Commissioner's Office. 

The Council's previous stance was that private email accounts were beyond the remit of FOI and Data Protection requests, because it is Council policy that only official email accounts may be used for council business. The Information Commissioner's Office then clarified on October 16th 2013:

"More generally, the Council will need to remind and impress upon the councillors the requirement to adhere to the Council’s policy on use of official Council email addresses only for Council business.   

Should any councillor fail to do so and continue using their personal email address to conduct Council business, it will need to be made clear to them that such information will be potentially subject to FOIA and will need to be made available upon request (subject to any valid exemption).  Moreover, were the Council to provide a not held response to a future request, or only provide some of the information actually held, and were the Commissioner to subsequently discover that in fact relevant information was contained in the personal email accounts of a councillor(s) then this would be a serious matter for which the Commissioner would need to consider more formal action."

I've recently been sent a series of Thanet District Council policy guidance documents that go some way to explain why officers and councillors might be struggling to keep up with the demands of modern day email communication. They have a 500MB inbox limit. I don't think I've had a 500MB limit for the last decade. 

Council email management guidance issued July 2012 gives the following advice:
"Things to remember about email;
Your Mailbox has a size limitYour mailbox will be set to a 500mb limit as standard and will only be extended with the written authorisation from a head of service or equivalent.To help you manage the amount of storage space, you should complete some routine housekeeping on a regular basis.  Housekeeping tasks should includeDeleting all unwanted emails from all your folders, inbox and sent boxSaving any large attachments to an appropriate network folder, then deleting the email
  • Using the inbuilt function to empty your ‘deleted items’ folder, this can be found in Tools – Options - Other"
What is not clear, is how councillors and officers, who are very busy, are supposed to manage deletion of information in the present day, that may then become relevant and important at a later date.

And further, recognition of emails as potentially required in future legal action or as evidence in a court case:
"A public office must not dispose of any records required for current or pending legal action or where the records may be required as evidence in a court case.  A public office should not destroy records that are the subject of a current or pending Freedom of Information (FOI) request."

What I can't yet find is any supporting policy guidance on claims that emails older than 4 months old can now be deleted. Most domestic free email accounts such as gmail give 15GB of storage, and some council based projects can take years to undertake, is the advice to delete for good housekeeping really prudent advice? As their own guidance states, correspondence can convey the background to contractual agreements. Another interesting fact is:

"It is important that nothing is sent via email that could be considered as bullying, harassment, offensive or discriminatory"

Thanet District Council Policy Guidance Documents relating to email retention:


  1. A splendid piece of research Ms O, and it explains a lot.

  2. Thank you, Dickie. Over to you for the explaining!

  3. Louise, thank you. You have shed a flood of light on the subject of TDC email policy. In many respects this curious TDC policy appears to be a case of the tail wagging the dog

  4. Interesting probably explains when I had something hot on the art and artefacts debacle I was told by a sympathetic Councillor never to email him on his TDC address , "ring me on my mobile"

  5. as I have not been able to access my email account at TDC for upwards of two years I am grateful to Louise for letting me know that when I finally am able to get at it...There will not be much to catch up on!!!

  6. Well this would certainly explain why so many people never get replies when writing to cllrs Ken! Absolutely ridiculous.