Records management

Staying out of the email hot seat

Image courtesy of ARMA NOVA: Paul Wester.

NARA's Paul Wester said his agency is working on detailed guidance to help feds better manage email records.

When federal records policies make headlines, it's usually bad news.

Records officers have not been ignoring the drumbeat of news stories about the missing email messages of former IRS official Lois Lerner, who is the target of a congressional probe into the way the agency grants tax-exempt status to activist groups.

A standing-room-only crowd that included scores of feds crammed into an Aug. 20 Digital Government Institute conference on records management, looking for guidance on how to comply with federal records requirements on agency email and other electronic media.

Paul Wester, chief records officer at the National Archives and Records Administration, used a photograph of him taking the oath at a July hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee as a cautionary tale for feds.

"If you don't want to have to stand before Congressman [Darrell] Issa with your hand raised, touching the chin of God, get your email under control," Wester said.

Feds are facing a looming email management deadline. By the end of 2016, agencies must be able to manage permanent and temporary email records "in an accessible electronic format," according to an Office of Management and Budget directive. That means an end to the cumbersome print-and-file mode used by many top officials in government and an end to manually dragging and dropping email messages and files into computer folders.

Records officers have plenty of policy guidance thanks to NARA's Capstone template on capturing agency email based on the rank of the account owner and the probability that his or her work involves the creation of permanent records. But there is less information about how to use IT to support email retention.

"We need to do a lot more work in the area of procurement and technology," Wester said. "We're in a bad position when we can tell you what to do [and] why you need to do it, and then you say, 'Tell me how to do it,' and we throw our hands up in the air or we say, 'That's what you guys need to figure out.'"

NARA is working on advanced guidance, due to be released in fiscal 2015, to provide more specificity for users of Microsoft, Google Apps for Government and other email clients. At the urging of Issa, NARA is also planning to produce a more concise version of the requirements for agencies to use in developing and executing email management policies.

One model agencies can look to is the Interior Department, which introduced an enterprisewide, cloud-based records management protocol using Google at its 14 bureaus and offices as part of an overall streamlining of technology. In the process of rewriting a 15-year-old records management policy, the agency consolidated a system with 200 records schedules and 2,330 distinct retention periods for different types of records and settled on a single schedule with 37 lines of business and 189 retention periods.

Interior's system uses artificial intelligence processes to identify email messages, documents and other records for retention and preservation. That approach supports sharing documents with Congress, NARA, the Justice Department, open-government requestors and the executive branch, said John Montel, who leads information management at Interior.

"You're able to get to that information and get to it consistently and not have to leverage human intervention," Montel said. "It might not do it correctly [every time], but it does it incorrectly consistently, which is a defensible position."

NARA has also issued guidance on how to write email management specifications into cloud contracts, but agencies have been slow to follow.

"We need to do more in that area, frankly," Wester told FCW after his presentation. "That's one of the areas where we need to figure out how to partner more effectively with OMB and with the agencies so they understand what their requirements are and figure out if there are ways we can more easily and more simply...explain what they need to do."

There's leverage to be found in negative events like the IRS scandal, Wester said. But even without the horror stories, agencies are increasingly thinking about email and other kinds of content "as a business asset that needs to be managed as opposed to ephemeral kinds of things that don't need to be kept," he said.

Reader comments

Mon, Aug 25, 2014

In the IRS's case, the email problems appear to be no accident, but intentional. I think any stories trying to say otherwise, are more part of the coverup than to serve a useful purpose.

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