Agencies back plan to delete old e-mails

Government agencies generally support a proposal to let federal agencies delete mountains of saved e-mails that have been marked as having no long-term value, but some public advocacy groups and others have expressed concern.

In public comments submitted to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), seven agencies agreed with the basic premise of the rule, which would let agencies permanently delete e-mails that "have minimal or no documentary or evidential value."

"This rule change will be beneficial to the entire federal government by reducing the burden associated with managing short-term e-mail records," wrote Joda Holt of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The proposal states that agencies should be permitted to delete e-mails under staggered retention periods, such as 90, 120 or 180 days. E-mails that have been requested under the Freedom of Information Act or that are involved in any litigation would be "frozen" until the matter is resolved, the rule states.

The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts supports the change but suggested that NARA "specifically state what the maximum time period is considered short term."

However, some agencies said the suggested retention periods are too short. "We recommend you consider extending it to temporary records of three years or even longer," wrote Chris O'Donnell of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Paul Arveson of the Balanced Scorecard Institute, an organization that advises government agencies on strategic management and best practices, said there is opposition to the destruction of e-mails because "it is an information source that is partly in the public domain."

He urged careful consideration in areas such as federal accounting and communication technologies like instant messaging. He added that the rule should define the criteria for retaining necessary records.

Public Citizen said the changes would have unintended consequences and would cast doubt on the competencies of the agencies. "In a perfect world, where federal employees were thoroughly versed in the distinction between those e-mail messages" of long-term, transitory or no value, Scott Nelson wrote on behalf of the group, "the proposed rule might be harmless." But he said employees could errantly delete important records.

Furthermore, Nelson said, with more communication being conducted via e-mail throughout the government, the rule could "result in a tremendous loss of information that is of long-term documentary or evidential value."

The Energy Department said a separate category for non-records "will become confusing to the individuals creating the e-mails." The Army Records Management and Declassification Agency, Social Security Administration and Labor Department also submitted comments generally favoring the rule.

The comments will be reviewed before the final regulation is issued, a NARA spokeswoman said.