You can mix your drinks or your ingredients for a cake, but don’t mix your records. That is, don’t mix your personal, private, party-political, constituent, or electoral communication or information with your public records.
This could be records in any form: emails, letters, apps, social media, or even spreadsheets just to mention a few! And here’s why…
Let’s use some examples:
Example 1: In one email
Imagine you’re emailing one of your team members, call her Martha. You ask Martha how her weekend was and whether she wants to extend the probation period of one of her team members. Martha replies:
“I had a great weekend. We had a few drinks on Saturday and felt under the weather for the rest of the weekend…was sick as a dog but ready to do it all again next weekend. Did you go wild too?
In terms of Barry’s probation, I’m not convinced he has demonstrated that he can do the job adequately at this stage. He hasn’t been able to write a briefing note or a draft policy without significant help. At his level he should be able to do this on his own with minor changes only. My view would be to extend his probation period.”
You reply and thank Martha for her advice, adding that you had a great weekend too.
Now is that email a public record? Yes. The whole email? Yes, the whole email!
And I know what some might be thinking “but what about the part where Martha writes about her wild weekend?” Yes, it’s a public record.
As soon as an email contains information about business activities, it’s a public record. And the definition of a public record includes part of a record too. Given it’s blended into the same email, you can’t just block out the personal stuff as it needs to be a complete and reliable record.
Example 2: In an email thread
Imagine you’ve asked your team leader Kara and two colleagues for a decision about which option to choose for a project.
You send out an email and ask everyone to choose an option and recommend option A.
Your two colleagues respond to the email with their choice, but one of them also lets you know a teammate is ill. A detailed personal discussion about that illness and colleague then takes place as you all want to make sure they’re ok.
Kara then responds to the email using the thread that contains all that personal discussion and states her decision and rationale for the project in question.
Is that thread a public record? Yes. The whole email? Again, the whole email!
Because the personal discussion is in between the advice about the question on options and the decision for the project, the entire email (with all the other emails in the thread) becomes a public record. This ensures that a complete and reliable record is retained.
Example 3: A councillor with correspondence from a citizen about both council and electorate issues
If you’re a Councillor and receive a single letter from a constituent asking you two questions:
- Seeking your support or interest in a new program they have developed and seeking funding from your council.
- Raising concerns about the way they are being treated by a staff member in your electorate office and seeking a resolution.
What do you do? If you respond to both questions in a single letter, again the whole letter is a public record as it contains Council business.
But if you respond to the two issues in separate letters, only the original letter and the letter responding to the first question are public records and need to captured and kept.
Keeping public records
Keep in mind that these public records need to be kept for as long as they are required.
For instance, the public record in example 1 is about employee performance and must be kept for seven years under disposal authorisation 1255 in the General Retention and Disposal Schedule.
Now, if the record is a permanent record, then those personal discussions and other non-work-related information will be kept forever too…
Don’t forget, your records may also be subject to Right to Information (RTI) requests, which can include the personal discussions and other information as well.
So, what do you need to know and do?
The same rules apply regardless of what application or format you’re using, the type of record, or where the record is kept.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re using email, letter, an app (e.g. chat in Microsoft Teams or WhatsApp or Yammer) or any other mechanism (e.g. text messages or social media apps) – it’s about the content not the location or the technology you’re using.
As soon as one part of the content is about official business, then the whole content is a public record!
This is why we recommend you keep your personal, private, constituent, electorate, party-political, divisional records or any other non-public record information separate from your business records – wherever possible – don’t mix them. Once they’re mixed, it’s almost impossible to undo. Once you’ve added the egg to the mixture – you can’t take it out again!
So, the main take away from all of this? Wherever possible try not to include personal or private information in a public record if you don’t want it to be there for a long time or even forever.
You can find out more about personal and public records on our Public records in private accounts page on the website.
As always, if you have any questions please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Featured image: Salisbury State High School, Cooking – Brisbane, Digital image ID 12008