E-mail management a mighty struggle for US agencies

To put it politely, the burgeoning use of e-mail is resulting in disruptive records management challenges for federal agencies.

A report issued today the Government Accountability Office said that while of the four agencies it reviewed e-mail policies generally contained required elements, but about half of the senior officials were not following these policies and were instead maintaining their e-mail messages within their e-mail accounts, where records cannot be efficiently searched, are not accessible to others who might need the information in the records, and are at increased risk of loss.  

Instead, e-mail messages, including records, were generally being retained in e-mail systems that lacked recordkeeping capabilities, which is contrary to regulation.

The GAO examined the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). For each agency, the GAO reviewed the e-mail management practices of four senior officials (including the agency head), using responses to a series of data collection instruments, interviews with agency officials, and inspection of a limited number of sample e-mail records identified by the agencies to corroborate their statements. Several agencies are considering developing electronic recordkeeping systems, but until such systems are implemented, agencies may have reduced assurance that information that is essential to protecting the rights of individuals and the federal government is being adequately identified and preserved, the GAO said.

Federal agencies are increasingly using e-mail for essential communication. In doing so, they are potentially creating messages that have the status of federal records, which must be managed and preserved in accordance with the Federal Records Act. To carry out the records management responsibilities established in the act, agencies are to follow implementing regulations that include specific requirements for e-mail records, the GAO said. Unless they have recordkeeping features, e-mail systems may not permit easy and timely retrieval of both groupings of related records as well as individual records.

Further, keeping large numbers of record and non-record messages in e-mail systems potentially increases the time and effort needed to search for information in response to a business need or an outside inquiry, such as a Freedom of Information Act request. Factors contributing to this practice were the lack of adequate staff support and the volume of e-mail received. In addition, officials and their responsible staff had not always received training in the recordkeeping requirements for e-mail records.

Unless they have recordkeeping capabilities, e-mail systems may not permit easy and timely retrieval of groupings of related records or individual records, the GAO report stated.

Still, it may come as little surprise that government agencies are a little shoddy when it comes to email record keeping since even the White House has an ongoing problem in tracking its own emails. In November the White House was told by a US judge that it must preserve e-mail and maintain copies of millions of backup e-mail messages that were allegedly deleted improperly from servers.

The order from Judge Henry Kennedy in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia was a victory for the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a watchdog group that filed suit against the Executive Office of the President and the National Archives and Record Administration last Fall. The group contended that the White House has not been accountable about the deleted e-mail messages and has a deficient e-mail archival system in place.  

The lawsuit also alleged that the defendants knowingly failed to recover, restore and preserve millions of electronic communications records in the White House. CREW alleged that the e-mail messages were improperly deleted from the servers.

For its part, the GAO acknowledges e-mail can present particular challenges to records management. First, the information contained in e-mail records is not uniform: it may concern any subject or function and document various types of transactions. As a result, in many cases, decisions on which e-mail messages are records must be made individually, the GAO said.

Second, the transmission data associated with an e-mail record—including information about the senders and receivers of messages, the date and time the message was sent, and any attachments to the messages—may be crucial to understanding the context of the record.

Third, a given message may be part of an exchange of messages between two or more people within or outside an agency, or even of a string (sometimes branching) of many messages sent and received on a given topic. In such cases, agency staff needs to decide which message or messages should be considered records and who is responsible for storing them in a recordkeeping system.

Finally, the large number of federal e-mail users and high volume of e-mails increase the management challenge. According to National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the use of e-mail results in more records being created than in the past, as it often replaces phone conversations and face-to-face meetings that might not have been otherwise recorded.

Awareness of federal records requirements is also an ongoing concern, the GAO said. At one department, training for senior officials on their records management responsibilities took place only at the beginning of the current administration. Officials who joined the department subsequently were not trained on records management. Similarly, several administrative staff responsible for managing the e-mail of senior officials told the GAO that they had not been trained to recognize a record, the GAO stated.

A draft bill, the Electronic Communications Preservation Act, would mandate agencies to transition to electronic records management by requiring the Archivist of the United States to promulgate regulations governing agency preservation of electronic communications that are federal records. Among other things, the regulations would:

● require the electronic capture, management, and preservation of these records;

● require that such electronic records are readily accessible for retrieval through electronic searches; and

● require the Archivist to develop mandatory minimum functional requirements for electronic records management applications to meet the first two requirements.

The legislation would also require agencies to comply with the new regulations within 4 years of enactment. Requiring a governmentwide transition to electronic recordkeeping systems could help federal agencies improve e-mail management. The 4-year deadline in the draft bill could help expedite this transition, the GAO said. 

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