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Text Messaging Policies

This page provides an overview of various approaches to text messaging policies, including sample policy language and examples for local government staff and elected officials in Washington State.

It is part of MRSC's Electronic Records Policy Tool Kit, created in partnership with the Washington State Auditor's Center for Government Innovation.


Overview

Text messaging is an important part of communication that is increasingly used by local government staff and elected officials. Like many other forms of communication, it is important to remember that text messages that relate to local government business can be considered public records. In 2015, the decision in Nissen v. Pierce County clarified this by stating that:

text messages sent and received by a public employee in the employee’s official capacity are public records of the employer, even if the employee uses a private cell phone. (Emphasis added.)

All local governments should develop a clear policy for how text messaging can or cannot be used by employees and elected officials, as well as how text messages will be managed and retained to satisfy the requirements of the Public Records Act (PRA).

Below are various policy approaches that jurisdictions in Washington have taken, as well as sample policy language options for each of the approaches. Local governments can use or modify the language options provided to fit their specific needs. MRSC also highly recommends reviewing the Washington State Archives Text Messaging Guidance Sheets before developing a policy, particularly the information regarding the retention and management of text message records.


Ban on Texting

One approach is to ban the use of text messages without exception. While the simplicity of this approach is appealing, it does not account for the extent to which the use of text messages has become commonplace in society. For more on what to do if an agency employee or official sends agency texts from a personal device or account, please see MRSC’s blog PRA Applies to Work-Related Texting on a Personal Cell Phone.

Example

Sample Policy Language - Adapted from Thurston County

All Agency business generated on personal mobile devices are subject to the Public Records Act. Agency email sent and received on a personal mobile device shall be archived in the Agency system for retention. Text messages sent and received on a personal mobile device are not stored in any other form. Employees shall not use texting for any Agency business.


Texting Banned with Limited Exceptions

Another approach is to ban texting generally but provide a process by which employees can receive authorization to text based on specific circumstances.

Examples

  • Benton County Portable Electronic Device Usage Policy (2016) – Generally no texting. Exceptions are allowed but must be approved in writing by a department head or elected official and must be coordinated with Central Services in order to “effectuate the archiving of such text messages.” See section 5h.

Sample Policy Language - Adapted from Benton County

No text messaging. Due to the difficulty in retaining and archiving records created by text messaging, for purposes of compliance with the Public Records Act, employees shall not use cell phones to send any text messaging relating to Agency business unless the employee has been previously authorized to do so in writing by the employee’s department head or elected official, and has coordinated with Central Services in order to effectuate the archiving of such text messaging.

  • Everett Electronic Communications Policy (2010) – Does not allow texting without approval from the Mayor or Mayor’s designee. Requests for exceptions must also include proposed procedures for meeting records retention requirements. See Policy 2.3G. 

Sample Policy Language - Adapted from Everett

As cell phone text messaging presents a potential records retention requirement, the use of Agency owned or personal cell phones to send text messages to conduct Agency business is prohibited without prior approval of the Mayor or the Mayor's designee. Such approval will only be considered when the benefits of texting outweigh the burdens and risks of texting. Any requests for exemption must include a proposed procedure for meeting records retention requirements.

  • Prosser Cell Phone Allowance (2018) – Allows texting only when the phone is synchronized with the city’s computer system so that proper retention can be ensured. See Policy 403. 

Sample Policy Language  - Adapted from Prosser

Employees utilizing cell phones for Agency business must not utilize written cell phone capabilities such as text messaging or email for Agency business unless such phone is synchronized with the Agency’s computer system so that such electronic records can be maintained according to the State records retention requirements. Employees utilizing cell phones and driving Agency vehicles or personal vehicles for Agency business must use a hands-free device when utilizing a cell phone and driving a vehicle.


Texting Allowed with Proper Retention Practices

Some agencies place responsibility on employees to ensure proper retention of agency text messages. 

Example 

  • Grandview Personnel Manual (2018) – Does not have any specific policies regarding text messaging but makes it clear that work-related text messages are subject to public disclosure and that the employee is responsible for retaining such records in accordance with law. See Section 25.01.3. 

Sample Policy Language - Adapted from Grandview

Public Records Act – Employees should be aware that work-related texts and voice messages on cell phones are public records subject to the Public Records Act. Employees have a duty to maintain such records in accordance with the Washington Local Government Record Retention Schedules.


Texting Allowed, but Only of a Transitory Nature

Another approach that some agencies are taking regarding text message policies relates to making a clear distinction between “transitory” and “non-transitory” records. Based on guidance from the Washington State Archives, “transitory” records have limited retention value and can be deleted when no longer needed for agency use.

Practice Tip: If a Public Records Request (PRA) is made, and there are transitory and/or other records that exist which are responsive to that request, those records need to be made available to the PRA requestor (subject to possible exemptions), regardless of whether those records could’ve been deleted as transitory records before the agency received the PRA request.

From a practical standpoint, this approach requires that agency staff and officials properly distinguish between a transitory vs. a non-transitory record. For agencies that go with this approach, we recommend that the policy is clear about: 

  1. What constitutes a transitory record, including examples of such records
  2. What is explained above in the “Practice Tip” regarding transitory records that are responsive to PRA requests.

Examples

  • Olympia Electronic Records – Allows texting of a routine or transitory nature but prohibits texts that involve substantive matters (“policy, contract, formal correspondence, or personnel related data”) Also says that any text messages that are work-related and need to be kept should be immediately transferred to the city’s network or devices. See Policy 4.4.4.

Sample Policy Language - Adapted from Olympia

Records created related to Agency business—including text messages, voicemail messages, and other electronic communications—are Agency records. These records therefore (1) should be managed according to the applicable retention schedule, and (2) may be subject to disclosure under the Public Records Act. The following is intended to help manage the business-related messages you send or receive on smart phones, tablets, or similar devices (iPhone, iPad, Blackberry, Android, etc.)

  1. With department director authorization, employees may use text messaging only for routine or transitory messages that don’t need to be retained by the Agency. Examples include informal notices of meetings, directions, scheduling information, and other routine messages that would not be kept in a file if it were a paper communication.
  2. Text messages may not be used to send policy, contract, formal correspondence, or personnel related data. Sensitive information should not be sent by text message, including social security numbers, credit card numbers, and passwords.
  3. Delete transitory, business-related text messages as soon as possible.
  4. If a text message needs to be retained pursuant to a retention schedule, employees must transfer the messages to the Agency’s network and/or devices.
  • Kent Text Messaging Policy (2015) – Draws a distinction between “transitory” and “non-transitory” texts and provides that non-transitory texts should not be sent.  It also provides procedures to follow when a public records request for texts is received depending on whether the text is on a city-owned or a personal cell phone.
  • Shoreline Use of Text Messaging for City Business (2017) – Establishes that all text messages should only be used to send messages of "transitory" nature. Provides examples of texts that are allowed and texts that are not allowed, as well as providing an exception to the policy for uncommon or major emergency responses.

Last Modified: March 05, 2019