Group submits draft policies on e-mail use

An interagency working group last month released draft policies aimed at encouraging agencies to reduce the size and to determine the appropriate use of e-mail messages.

The Federal E-mail Postmasters Council (Fedpost), which was formed by the Chief Information Officers Council's Interoperability Committee, released the draft policies as part of an effort to improve the performance and interoperability of networks governmentwide. The working group, which met for the first time in January, has submitted the policies to the CIO Council for comment and approval.

The drafts are a first step in addressing some of the top priorities for federal postmasters who manage and run agency e-mail systems, said Keith Thurston, assistant to the deputy associate administrator for information technology policy at the General Services Administration, and he serves as Fedpost chairman. "This also sends a signal that there is a way for the government to unify itself in its approach to e-mail," Thurston said. "There is now a broad forum to bring these issues to the [forefront]."

Ultimately the goal of the group is to ensure interoperability among different agency e-mail systems. The concept of interoperability is "critical, which is why the committee looked across government for [input]," said Neil Stillman, deputy CIO at the Department of Health and Human Services and co-chairman of the Interoperability Committee. "The concept of the CIO Council is to get government to act as a whole. Hopefully, [as a result] the government will do business more efficiently." Unnecessarily large e-mail attachments, for example, can create congestion on an e-mail system and clog gateways between different agencies' systems. To help prevent this, Fedpost recommends that agencies limit the size of any e-mail, including any attachments, to 2.5M or smaller.

"Your agency is encouraged to adopt this limit so as to accommodate end users' expectations and to provide for a level of consistency among government agencies," the draft policy stated.

Agencies also should identify appropriate situations for an employee to use e-mail, which should reduce e-mail traffic on systems. "If you can't communicate, you can't interoperate," Thurston said. "You have to establish recommended uses of e-mail so [that] the systems work better for everyone."

The draft policy on approved uses of e-mail considers e-mail being sent on government computers and networks as government property and not personal property. In addition, some e-mails are subject to the Freedom of Information Act and are considered official records. If an agency allows its employees to use e-mail for other than official use, the draft recommends that it be restricted to "limited personal use."

Some agencies such as the Commerce Department are already in the process of drafting e-mail policies. Although not yet approved, Commerce's draft policy allows employees who use e-mail for work to also use it for personal use. However, employees must not cost the government money or use e-mail to view sexually explicit material.

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