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 government wide 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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