Sprehe: E-mail records problems

White House officials didn’t save their e-mail messages, but neither do officials at most agencies

The news has been full of stories about senior White House aides using the Republican National Committee’s e-mail system, apparently as a way of circumventing official recordkeeping required under the Presidential Records Act.

Federal employees should pause before joining the finger-pointing now directed at the White House.With rare exceptions, no federal agency has a system for systematically capturing e-mail messages that qualify as federal records.

E-mail messages are correspondence documents, the same as interoffice memos or letters that arrive in the mail. Although the messages are electronic, that does not alter their possible status as federal records.

Whether created inside or outside the agency, e-mail messages must by law be evaluated as potential official records. Yet almost no agency is doing this. Agencies ignore the Federal Records Act and National Archives and Records Administration regulations when it comes to e-mail. The White House may be violating the law, but your agency undoubtedly is doing so, too.

Yes, some agencies capture all e-mail messages and store it. They do not manage e-mail as records. They come from the stick-it-in-storage-and-forget-about-it school of e-mail management.

The majority of agencies delete e-mail messages in their agency systems after about 120 or 180 days. By that time, employees should have decided which e-mail messages are records and should have either printed them or sent them to an electronic records management system.

Do employees perform those actions? Certainly not.

Sprehe Many agencies simply don’t train their employees to sort record-worthy e-mail from other mail. With one exception I know of, no agency has a quality assurance program to ensure that e-mail qualifying as records gets declared as records and that employees failing to do so know their behavior is being monitored.

Let’s face it. Employees know that records management is not their job. That’s what records officers do. For agencies to rely on every employee to sort the e-mail messages that are records is monumentally misguided in my judgment. Employees will not do this task.

E-mail records management is eminently susceptible to automation in ways agencies are unwilling to pursue. The majority of record documents are predictable. They come from staff members in certain positions and have certain subjects and content. We do not need rocket scientists to figure out which employees, subjects and content will generate records.

Agency systems already carry most of the necessary metadata for records management. Auto-categorization tools can be tailored to the task. E-mail records management can be largely automated with today’s technology and at a moderate cost.

So why do agencies fail to address this glaring vulnerability? It is a puzzlement, as the saying goes. But before you start pointing your finger at White House e-mail practices, look to your own house.

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

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