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Move with the times – in defence of WhatsApp in government

Former minister and current member of the House of Lords argues that the UK government needs to move with the times and embrace new communications tools such as WhatsApp

There are two billion active WhatsApp users worldwide. It’s the most popular instant messaging platform because it is so useful. Workers and families have driven the growth. It’s used in hospital wards, fire stations, garrisons and school staffrooms up and down the country.

This has not been a top-down edict. This a revolution from the shopfloor, the school gate, the nursing station and, at times, the Private Office in the UK civil service. Where businesses and government have failed to create the systems that let people work effectively together, people have taken matters into their own hands and embraced new technology to do the job better and quicker.

I embrace that revolution.

Certainly, we could not have responded to the pandemic as effectively without modern communications, and I include Teams, Slack and Zoom in this.

When the virus hit our shores, we had to massively scale up our public health services, which led to a sudden and urgent need for collaboration between people who had not worked together, across silos, across agencies and across departments.

If you had gone to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) headquarters in this time you would have seen people from Army logistics, the intelligence services, consultancies like Deloitte, Cabinet Office procurement, Public Health England (PHE) epidemiologists, NHS clinicians, volunteers and myriad agencies. They were fighting hard to stand up testing capacity, support our hospitals and social care, roll out the vaccine programme, and so on. They certainly were not all on the same email server.

To give you one vivid example, take the hotel quarantine borders project. It required a phenomenal creativity to stitch together a system based on flight booking, hotel room management systems, visa requirements, airport check-in stations, passenger landing forms and the cyber security team, among others.

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This required collaboration across the Home Office, transport, DHSC, and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), including agencies that had hardly ever touched each other, working from home and using banks of contract staff.

We wouldn’t have had the agility to do that in time by email and phone. Teams and WhatsApp were absolutely critical to standing up an entirely new service in just six weeks – an achievement that has won awards.

To summarise, messaging and video apps were essential in three key ways: to forge collaboration between teams; to share up-to-date information and work towards agile responses; and to encourage creativity by sharing ideas. 

It was the same picture right across government, NHS and public services.

There is no way we could have moved so far and so quickly if we had adhered to the old ways of doing things. After becoming minister, I needed an NHS email address so I could read essential dashboards. It took six months. When I made this point to a predecessor, they were shocked. “You managed to get an NHS email address? I am staggered! I never got that far.”

And it is not just at times of emergency that government services need more creativity, agility and collaboration. The challenges our country faces are increasingly complex and the responses, like the Childhood Obesity Strategy, requires cross-cutting solutions and better working practices.

I recognise that new technologies often create suspicion. Napoleon worried a nationwide system of semaphores would encourage revolution and restricted its use to the military.

Through the ages, people who fear conspiracies often invest those fears into technology. This is true today.

There are those who worry there were conspiracies in government in the pandemic. And when they could not find the evidence for their theories, despite exhaustive searches by the authorities, they assumed it had been destroyed. This is a very dangerous mentality. Just because the conspiracy theorists do not find what they expected, it does not mean their conspiracies were right all along. Quite the opposite. And we should not prioritise policy-making around their false assumptions.

I also recognise many Westminster types feel WhatsApp is mostly useful for cycling gossip and tips. But that’s not most people’s experience. I have four children, four school gate groups and a wild swimming club that I couldn’t manage without my very square, ungossipy WhatsApp groups.

There are those who think the very purpose of communication is to record events for future analysis. That’s not right. Most communication is done to achieve complex objectives. I am therefore sceptical that every tiny exchange is worth keeping. I would remind everyone that the Freedom of Information Act was first drafted at the end of the last century before email was widespread and before instant messaging and video conferencing had been invented, and so needs a serious update.

Where some people fear an erosion of document-keeping standards, I see a massive mission creep to take advantage of the explosion of digital communications to try to capture the sort of ephemeral dialogue that would have previously happened by a water cooler or on a Post-It, and without investing the capability to analyse or contextualise what is being captured.

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