New email records policy takes shape

A presidential directive requires agencies to manage email records in electronic form by the end of 2016, and the National Archives' plan to hit the goal is almost in final form.

Shutterstock image (by Markus Gann): flying email envelopes.

The National Archives and Records Administration is inching closer to releasing a model records schedule for email management to help agencies comply with a presidential directive to have such messages saved in electronic format by the end of 2016.

NARA's Capstone guidance has existed in various draft forms since the summer of 2013. The plan is to designate certain senior officials at federal agencies whose email accounts are classified as permanent records, to be subject to eventual transfer to the National Archives. Now NARA is taking comments on a records schedule designed to implement the Capstone approach for email records management.

Capstone is a blunt instrument, officials acknowledged at a May 21 forum held at the National Archives, convened for records managers and other stakeholders, including government watchdog groups.

"Capstone dispenses with content analysis," said NARA general counsel Gary Stern. "It's a crude, simplistic approach. It may not be great, but it's better than the existing approach."

The idea behind Capstone is, in part, to eliminate the accessioning of printed emails as records -- the practice at many agencies -- and to identify without ambiguity those whose official emails constitute federal records. Capstone isn't mandatory, but agencies that choose to go their own way in developing records schedules must still comply with the timeline established by the presidential directive, and have a plan approved by NARA.

Capstone casts a wide net. It designates by default the email accounts of all heads of department, principal assistants, deputies to senior officials, staff assistants, top management roles such as CIOs, COOs, and CFOs, key program directors, senior regional managers and officials, top advisers, and any miscellaneous presidential appointees as sources of permanent records. Those email records are to be transferred to NARA custody after 15 years, or after any necessary declassification process, whichever is later. NARA plans to make public the job titles, though not the names, of officials whose email is captured under the Capstone program.

Non-Capstone federal employees and contractors who create federal records as part of their jobs are subject to different retention schedules. Those designated as administrative or support staff are subject to a default three-year retention; others in management or professional roles have their emails kept for seven years. A key challenge for agencies will be how to comply with these processes, when the use of older email servers with limited storage necessitates the frequent deletion of emails.

The Clinton angle

Records management has been in the news of late because of the imbroglio over the email of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, which was maintained on a private server using personal accounts, during her term in office.

Before releasing a reported 30,000 printed emails to the State Department for records purposes, Clinton and her staff deleted about 30,000 others that she said were not work related.

Under Capstone, officials and staffers will be responsible for a similar chore -- culling emails that are deemed "nonrecord" because they are personal, transitory, spam, department-wide email blasts, or other communications that don't qualify for shipment to the National Archives. Under Capstone, "culling may be manual, automated, or a hybrid of both."

Software exists to analyze the content of email and select relevant records and delete the chaff, and is used in the electronic discovery of documents by big law firms, but is less used by government in routine information management. Federal records policy doesn't require agencies to use such tools, but the presumption by officials is that they will be more widely utilized in the future.

In the meantime, archivists are preparing for a flood of emails.

"Our archivists who deal with the permanent records, some of them are a little frustrated with this approach because they know that they're going to be getting these large volumes, which still will contain lots of not very substantive records within them," said Paul Wester, chief records officer for the U.S. Government. 

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