Right now, lawmakers are insisting that the Bush administration to release e-mails related to the firing of eight U.S. attorneys, as well as e-mails concerning oversight of the federal student-loan programs.
Current rules, or lack thereof, on retention make it easy for agencies to purge e-mails, said Patrice McDermott, a former employee at the National Archives and Records Administration in the early 1990s and now executive director of OpenTheGovernment.org. Regulations allow agencies to have staff print e-mail records and then destroy the electronic copies.
"These e-mails are probably not being stored electronically," McDermott said.
Another factor leading to disarray: Most agencies do not have electronic records-management systems for e-mail. "They can store these e-mails on a server somewhere, but if they are just stored, there's no way to pull them up by searchable fields," she said. Retrieving e-mails for investigations "could be extraordinarily difficult if they exist at all in electronic format."
Tim Sprehe, a former senior policy analyst at the White House Office of Management and Budget and author of a government-wide policy directive on the management of federal information resources, said, "There's so many e-mails, most people don't print them out."
"It's generally just a disaster waiting to happen," added Sprehe, now president of Sprehe Information Management Associates.
According to the National Archives, multiple agencies are moving toward electronic records-management systems for e-mail, but currently most agencies still rely on paper recordkeeping.
The archives said in a statement that "it understands that e-mail communications that do not fall within the definition of what constitutes a record may also need to be managed as the need arises; however, this is generally a matter that is left to each agency to determine on a case-by-case basis."
Mike Miller, a former chief of records automation in the FBI who now works as a program manager for records management with Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, said the government needs a two-tier system for managing e-mails.
First, informal e-mail conversations leading to decisions, drafts, and other routine communications not required for official files should be kept for short periods, with employees responsible for keeping such so-called working files and organizing them in a way that makes sense to them.
Miller sketched a scenario that a federal worker might face: "I'm kicking around ideas about how to respond to a Freedom of Information request with my boss. I should probably be holding on to that" so that if a citizen asks why a request was denied, "I can say, 'Here is my e-mail trail. Here is why I made the decision.'"
Second, e-mails that document discourse about regulations or other matters important to government work should be maintained in official files controlled by records-management divisions.