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E-mail management a mighty struggle for US agencies

E-mail management a mighty struggle for US agencies

E-mail messages are being retained in e-mail systems that lacked record keeping capabilities

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 US 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 record keeping capabilities, which is contrary to regulation.

The GAO examined the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and the US 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 US 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 US 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.

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