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.

The Fed 100

Save the date for 28th annual Federal 100 Awards Gala.

Featured

  • computer network

    How Einstein changes the way government does business

    The Department of Commerce is revising its confidentiality agreement for statistical data survey respondents to reflect the fact that the Department of Homeland Security could see some of that data if it is captured by the Einstein system.

  • Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Army photo by Monica King. Jan. 26, 2017.

    Mattis mulls consolidation in IT, cyber

    In a Feb. 17 memo, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told senior leadership to establish teams to look for duplication across the armed services in business operations, including in IT and cybersecurity.

  • Image from Shutterstock.com

    DHS vague on rules for election aid, say states

    State election officials had more questions than answers after a Department of Homeland Security presentation on the designation of election systems as critical U.S. infrastructure.

  • Org Chart Stock Art - Shutterstock

    How the hiring freeze targets millennials

    The government desperately needs younger talent to replace an aging workforce, and experts say that a freeze on hiring doesn't help.

  • Shutterstock image: healthcare digital interface.

    VA moves ahead with homegrown scheduling IT

    The Department of Veterans Affairs will test an internally developed scheduling module at primary care sites nationwide to see if it's ready to service the entire agency.

  • Shutterstock images (honglouwawa & 0beron): Bitcoin image overlay replaced with a dollar sign on a hardware circuit.

    MGT Act poised for a comeback

    After missing in the last Congress, drafters of a bill to encourage cloud adoption are looking for a new plan.

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group