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.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by G Suite

    Cross-Agency Teamwork, Anytime and Anywhere

    Dan McCrae, director of IT service delivery division, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

    Download
  • Data-Centric Security vs. Database-Level Security

    Database-level encryption had its origins in the 1990s and early 2000s in response to very basic risks which largely revolved around the theft of servers, backup tapes and other physical-layer assets. As noted in Verizon’s 2014, Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR)1, threats today are far more advanced and dangerous.

    Download
  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

    Download
  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.