Agencies' e-mail policy: old wine in a new bottle

A lot of federal agencies are stewing over e-mail policy these days. Everyone has to have a policy to curb various excesses and indiscretions they see cropping up in how their employees are using electronic messaging. Here in a nutshell is Dr. Tim's discourse on the essence of e-mail policy.

First of all e-mail policy is a catchall term for a potpourri of specific concerns. Agencies need to start their policy-development exercise by making a list of the topics that their policy must cover. Second with list in hand the agencies should ask themselves whether they already have longstanding policies on these topics. The answer probably will be yes. As they work through the process the agencies will discover that e-mail is not a new policy area. It just requires new applications of existing policies.

For example many agencies want their e-mail policy to deal with the use of e-mail for personal business during official work hours. When they look around the agencies will find they already have policies on personal uses of telephones and copying machines. So all they have to do is restate existing personal-use policies in the new context of e-mail.

Another topic bothering many is netiquette which comprises the standards of ethical and proper behavior for conducting business over the Internet. You can find dozens of netiquette guides on the Internet so you do not have to reinvent that wheel.

In addition your agency already may have a policy on standards of conduct for employees as well as guidelines for correspondence - another chance to restate old policy in a new situation.

Pushing the Privacy Button

E-mail privacy is another hot button. Many workers bristle at the idea that their supervisors or Webmasters may be reading their e-mail. The fact is employees have quite limited expectations of privacy when they are on the job. On the one hand nobody wants nosy supervisors destroying morale and creating a climate of suspicion and distrust by eavesdropping constantly on subordinates' e-mail.

On the other hand the agency has a legitimate interest in making sure its employees are not using business premises to engage in criminal behavior for which the agency might be held liable. So under some circumstances a supervisor could have good cause to read employee e-mail. And the exigencies of routine system maintenance might require technical staff to dip into others' e-mail as well. These are facts of life in every workplace.

But the main point is that the agency most likely has already grappled with this kind of situation in the past. In many ways reading employees' e-mail is no different from inspecting the contents of their desks or the personal files they keep a their workspace. You probably already have some guidance on the subject so use it.

In the same vein agencies are beginning to realize that e-mail and the Internet are productive new publishing vehicles. If managers are worried about some cowboy down in the agency's bowels broadcasting unfinished drafts of agency documents to the world they need to remind employees of the time-tested rules governing the clearance of agency publications.

Remind them also to respect authors' interests in copyright materials.

We all should know by now that e-mail can be a federal record. E-mail messages that describe or record the official business of the agency are records subject to the Federal Rec-ords Act. You should apply the same decision-making processes to e-mail that you apply to other documentary materials regardless of the media used to create them. It is the nature of the information itself that determines whether an e-mail message is a federal record.

And remember: When you are managing e-mail as records you must save the names and addresses of the sender and all recipients as well as the subject of the message and the date of transmission.

(While you're thinking about e-mail records why not go ahead and clean up your agency's sloppy act with other electronic and paper records as well?)

Worried about unauthorized use of e-mail and computer security? Your agency surely has established policies on these topics so just reapply them.

So there it is in a nutshell. E-mail policy is just old wine in a new bottle.-- Sprehe is president of Sprehe Information Management Associates Washington D.C. He can be reached via the Internet at jtsprehe@intr.net.

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