The cast of Working Dog’s Utopia

The Australian government has, for the first time, released conversations held on the communications platform Slack, in response to Crikey‘s freedom of information request.

It was reported in October that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was urging ministers in his cabinet to use the encrypted communications platform to communicate with one another. There had been concern that use of Slack for official communications of ministers might not be accessible under freedom of information, and thus conversations might not end up being retained.

Crikey filed a request to the Digital Transformation Office, Turnbull’s pet project, which was known to use the platform, for all Slack communications for October 8, 2015.

The Digital Transformation Office, under CEO Paul Shetler, was set up by Turnbull while still communications minister to transform government services to make them available online and digital by default. The agency received over $300 million in this year’s budget, and it has hit the ground running, with plans to transform the digital services of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, Department of Human Services, the Australian Taxation Office and the ACT government.

When Turnbull became prime minister, the office moved with him out of the Communications portfolio into the Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet.

It is no surprise, then, given Turnbull’s preference for Slack, that DTO was already trialling the application internally.

After negotiations with the FOI officer over the scope of the request for Slack conversations, it was agreed that the usernames would be excluded to protect the privacy of the staff, and in order to ensure that the request was not considered a substantial diversion of department resources, it was agreed that only the public Slack channel used by all staff in the department would be in the request. This means that smaller channels and one-on-one conversations were excluded.

This week, the Digital Transformation Office supplied 39 pages of conversation from the agency for October 8, sadly with all the emoji removed. Most conversation is banal, including what the weather is like, how boring it is to travel between Sydney and Canberra, highlights of Lithgow (The Big Miner’s Lamp, the prison, McDonald’s), office decorations (“some cool drawings for your collaborative space”), and pets (with the name of the pet redacted), but it does reveal some insight into the agency’s operations.

According to the Slack conversations as of October 8, the agency had received 13 draft digital transformation plans from “key service delivery agencies”, with another four on the way. The plans will need ministerial approval, and some agencies were still considering their plans.

“Austrade are definately [sic] in and Environment considering but likely!” one Slack conversation revealed.

Wi-fi is an issue in one of the new offices for the agency, a conversation revealed, as though it were something out of Utopia.

“Hopefully we all don’t have to cram into the men’s toilet to get the only wi-fi signal … It was like Working Dog have spies. Except it would have the script finished months ago,” one said.

“Don’t be silly! … It’s the Comms room we have to cram into. In all seriousness we are looking into patching the Wi-Fi from level 1 to level 2. No promises, but we are trying …”

“I was watching Utopia too and thought the exact same thing!”

While the government is seemingly skirting its FOI obligations in a number of areas — such as the sudden disappearance of documents after a ministerial reshuffle, and government departments often taken different approaches to what can and can’t be released under freedom of information law, Slack conversations are, indeed for the time being, within the scope of FOI requests.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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