Sprehe: Pop-up policies

E-mail is an essential part of agency business processes, but only a handful of officials are properly managing e-mail records.

The majority are ignoring the grave liability issues associated with their failure to keep either electronic or paper records of important agency actions and decisions conveyed via e-mail.

When they are called to account for actions that were discussed and decided on via

e-mail — whether in court or by Congress — agencies will come up empty-handed because the messages will have been deleted.

Some officials have chosen the tempting fix of using pop-up messages to prompt end users. When a user creates an e-mail and hits Send, a pop-up message asks whether the e-mail is a record and, if the answer is yes, where it should be filed.

Officials at those agencies believe they now have e-mail records management under control. Almost always, they are wrong.

Using desktop pop-up messages for e-mail records management is a bad idea for at least three major reasons.

First, as a general principle, information technology should increase worker productivity, not decrease it. Asking workers to take the time to decide whether something is a record and where it should be filed takes time away from their jobs. The seconds end users take to make those decisions add up to minutes, hours and days subtracted from their productivity. This is poor IT management policy.

Second, asking end users to make records management decisions means that the agency ends up having as many records managers as it has end users. This also is poor records management policy. Trained records officers are the only people who should be making such decisions.

End-user pop-ups are effective only if the agency is willing to make a sustained investment in training and quality control for end users. Unless they are truly serious about records management, almost no agencies will make that commitment.

Third, e-mail pop-ups don't work. End users know records management is not their responsibility. They resist the pop-ups, play games with the system, declare everything a nonrecord or simply do not comply. The policy ends up annoying its end users and the agency gets lousy e-mail records management.

The best practice in electronic records management — whether for e-mail or document management systems — is to minimize end-user involvement.

Electronic records management should occur in the background, transparent and nonintrusive to end users.

Creating such a system is not rocket science. But it takes ingenuity and cooperation among records managers and IT managers, characteristics conspicuously lacking in most agencies.

Sprehe is president of Sprehe Information Management Associates Inc. in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at jtsprehe@jtsprehe.com.

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