Agency e-mail records need help

Missing White House e-mail messages reveal poor state of recordkeeping

NARA Basic Laws & Authorities

The scramble to recover electronic communications that White House officials made using nongovernment accounts underscores the challenges federal agencies face in tracking e-mail records. There is no uniform governmentwide rule mandating how agencies flag e-mail messages that should be kept as records. Instead each agency determines its processes — and the result is a mess, experts say.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is asking 25 agencies for help in finding missing White House e-mail messages. The committee is investigating whether White House officials may have run afoul of the Presidential Records Act, which mandates that all official communications be kept as records.

The decision to ask agencies for records has highlighted the personal nature of electronic recordkeeping. Initially, employees rather than specialized records managers decide whether to keep an e-mail message, said Laurence Brewer, the National Archives and Records Administration’s Life Cycle Management Division director.

“Agency staff members sitting at their terminals need to be trained in records management,” Brewer said. “For those e-mails that fit the definition of a record, they need to be preserved and filed in a recordkeeping system.”

The dependence on rank-and-file employees to make critical recordkeeping decisions has some experts worried.

“Employees are not trained records managers,” said Tim Sprehe, a records management expert and Federal Computer Week columnist. “It’s the records officer who decides what a record is and that should not be left to individual employees, because then you get as many definitions of records as there are employees.”

The House committee is looking for e-mail messages that it says at least 88 White House officials sent or received using Republican National Committee or Bush/Cheney ’04 campaign e-mail addresses. Investigators believe some of those messages could be official communications.

So far, the RNC produced records for only 37 of the 88 e-mail addresses, leaving investigators searching for other possible ways to locate the documents.
RNC spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt said that the committee’s chairman, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), “jumped the gun and appears to be representing Democrats’ partisan spin.”

Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), the committee’s ranking member, also disagreed with Waxman’s allegations. He said Waxman’s report on the missing e-mail is incomplete and premature.

Waxman said many of the e-mail messages the RNC preserved, including more than 140,000 sent or received by Karl Rove, have .gov addresses and that officials who work in the White House used them to communicate with agencies about federal appointments and policies.

The committee investigation continues, so investigators do not know how many of the e-mail messages missing from RNC servers were received and stored on agencies’ servers — or if they were stored there, how easy they will be to find.

Some federal agencies capture and store all e-mail messages, but others take an overnight snapshot of inboxes and outboxes, which would not be a complete record of all e-mail messages received, industry experts say.

“Pulling things from backup tape is extremely labor intensive, and it’s prone to failure a lot of the time,” said Walter Nichols, a Microsoft Federal unified communications architect. “It’s basically Murphy’s law when you start pulling things up from three-year-old backup tapes anything can happen, and you can lose a lot of data that way.”
From e-mail message to federal record in 4 stepsThe National Archives and Records Administration said an e-mail message goes through several steps before it becomes an official federal record.

1. A records manager uses NARA guidelines to create policies or schedules for different types of e-mail messages and designs education programs for employees.

2. NARA approves those policies and programs, and makes them available to employees.

3. Whenever an employee receives or sends an e-mail message, he or she decides if it is a federal record using the guidelines.

4. The employee saves the record based on appropriate retention and disposition guidelines.

— Ben Bain

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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