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.
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:
[T]ext 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.
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.
- Thurston County Personal Mobile Device Policy (2012) — Does not allow any texting on cell phones for any county business. No exceptions.
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.
Another approach is to ban texting generally but provide a process by which employees can receive authorization to text based on specific circumstances.
- Federal Way Employee Guidelines (2023) — Prohibits the use of text messaging to conduct government unless approved by department director during a regional disaster or emergency.
Sample Policy Language - Adapted from Federal Way
Absent a Department Director’s approval or during a regional disaster or emergency, the City of Federal Way prohibits the use of text messaging to conduct government business. No City employee will conduct business via text message. Because the City preserves all email sent or received by City servers, email from an official City account is the approved format for electronic communications. Entirely personal text messages between employees (i.e., completely unrelated to government business) are not work-related text messages that are prohibited by this policy.
- Tumwater Technology Use Policy (2018) – Conducting city business via text messages on cell phones and other electronic devices (whether owned by the city or not) is allowed only on devices that are enrolled in a text message archive service managed by the city's IT department.
Sample Policy Language — Adapted from Tumwater
All text messages are considered primary records and to be retained in a manner acceptable to the City. Employees faced with an emergency situation may use text messaging to conduct business when no reasonable alternative is available, but primary records of messages must be retained in a manner acceptable to the City.
- Prosser Cell Phone Allowance (2022) — 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.
Some agencies place responsibility on employees to ensure proper retention of agency text messages.
- Grandview Personnel Manual (2022) — Does not include 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.
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:
- What constitutes a transitory record, including examples of such records
- What is explained above in the “Practice Tip” regarding transitory records that are responsive to PRA requests.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- Delete transitory, business-related text messages as soon as possible.
- 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.
- Ellensburg Personnel Policies Manual (2023) — Employees are instructed not to use instant messaging or text messaging for communications records that have retention value and provides examples of what may be considered a "transitory" message.
- Enumclaw Acceptable Use of City IT Resources Policy (2023) — Primarily covers transitory messages but does explains what staff should do if something that has retention value was sent via text.
- Kent Text Messaging Policy (2016) — 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.
- Redmond Information Technology Usage – Text and Instant Message Use (2018) — Provides examples of permissible and impermissible texts that can be sent on a city-owned device. See 11.200 Information Technology Usage.
- 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.