Probes highlight problems with agencies’ e-mail storage

The paucity of policies on maintaining government e-mail could make it hard for agencies to comply with the slew of recent demands from Capitol Hill for correspondence involving government officials.

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.

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