E-mail overload

For the most part, federal information technology shops are humming along, adequately managing the increasing number of e-mail messages flowing into and within agencies. Although they complain about the mounting e-mail messages they have to read and file, federal employees say the problem is manageable.

But IT vendors and consultants warn that all that is about to change. As agencies move closer to being digital workplaces, e-mail messages will continue to pile up, security concerns will increase, advances in e-mail technology will increase the use of bulky voice and video attachments that will eat up more memory and make electronic missives more difficult to store and send, and federal policies requiring agencies to save some e-mail messages as records will begin to take such a toll that managing e-mail will require more of IT managers' and federal employees' time.

Betsy Fanning, director of standards at AIIM Interna.tional, an industry group focused on electronic and content management, is one voice sounding the alarm. Given the multiplicity of things that have to be managed, she said, every organization faces a looming e-mail problem. Beyond managing e-mail volume, security and attachments, she said, federal IT managers must also consider how to properly train employees to know when they are required to store messages as official records.

"These are broad issues that have to be addressed," Fanning said. "Unfortunately, not everyone is doing something about them. [Technology managers have] tended to push [e-mail concerns] into a corner while they are dealing with other technology issues."

One reason may be that advancements in e-mail management haven't kept pace with the increasing volume of e-mail messages. In the past, it was often a relatively low-level employee's part-time responsibility to sift through e-mail messages and reroute, file or delete them.

That approach is exacerbating tensions between Congress and the public, according to a report published earlier this year by the Congress Online Project, which studies how Congress can make better use of the Internet. Although citizens have embraced e-mail as their preferred way for communicating with members of Congress — individual House offices now receive as many as 8,000 e-mail messages a month, while Senate offices receive up to 55,000 — most congressional offices have not changed their e-mail management practices.

Many managers realize they must change their approach, according to Kathy Goldschmidt, principal author of the report. But such changes require managers to rethink their communications practices — and their budgeting and hiring practices.

"The hardware and software they need are ever-increasing percentages of their individual office budgets [and are] investments they did not need to make five years ago," Goldschmidt wrote. "Additionally, where once offices could hire unskilled staff to serve as liaisons with outside technical support, they now need skilled in-house systems administrators to effectively manage their more sophisticated systems." However, many federal employees are more accepting of the role e-mail plays in their jobs — like Joyce Cange, a loan guarantee officer for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Detroit. Cange said she spends an hour to an hour and a half a day sifting through her e-mail messages, but she views the task as part of her job.

"I think it's manageable, but you have to be careful in how you organize it," she said.

Some IT managers and Webmasters recognize the importance of e-mail management and are taking steps to become better prepared. At NASA, officials plan to launch a public correspondence unit this year to respond to public e-mail and "snail mail" inquiries that need more than a stock answer. Brian Dunbar, NASA spokesman and manager of online services at NASA headquarters, said he receives 20 to 100 messages a day from people surfing the NASA Web site looking for answers to such questions as "How do I become an astronaut?" Sometimes the response is straightforward, but often it's not. The correspondence unit should help the agency respond to those questions. "We really try to get to [e-mail messages] as we can, but sometimes it's impossible," he said.

Other agencies are more cautious about the potential downside to the growth in e-mail. Officials at the Defense Information Systems Agency, for example, are pleased that their employees have worldwide access to e-mail. Despite a 50 percent to 100 percent increase in traffic in recent years, the agency's e-mail volume has since leveled off to a "modest" annual growth of 10 percent or so, with e-mail probably edging out the telephone as the principal means of communication.

But because of that popularity, the Defense Department has tough management problems, according to Betsy Flood, a DISA spokeswoman. "For example who tracks [a document] and how?" she asked. Other "challenges include ensuring the security of our e-mail networks, proper records management and adapting workflow processes to now include e-mail." All DISA users must diligently manage their own files and delete e-mail messages they no longer need, Flood said. If their mailbox becomes clogged with too many messages, employees may encounter difficulties accessing information or using e-mail. And although the benefits of e-mail and other e-business capabilities are enormous, she said, "so are the risks. Viruses, worms, hoaxes and chain mail are threats we take seriously."

The General Services Administration has also experienced an increase in e-mail volume, but it has not caused problems so far, said Paul Butler, leader of the electronic messaging team in the office of the chief information officer. There has been a 45 percent increase in inbound e-mail traffic and a 49 percent increase in outbound e-mail just in the last year, he said, and those numbers are expected to steadily increase.

Nevertheless, he's confident that e-mail can be managed. "This is a direct result of the fact that we've observed this to be the trend for the past couple of years and have planned accordingly," he said.

What's not so certain is how GSA will handle possible future problems, which Butler put into three distinct categories: an increased threat of virus infection via e-mail; an increase in spam, or unsolicited, e-mail; and an increased use of large file attachments.

Managers have access to formal standards and policies, which form the backbone of a management program to determine when an e-mail message constitutes an official document and, therefore, must be saved as a record. From that backbone, agencies then build their own guidelines.

The two main elements of this backbone are DOD 5015.2-STD, which defines the criteria that electronic records management software must adhere to, and 36 Code of Federal Regulations Parts 1220, 1222, 1228 and 1234, which spell out government.wide regulations for e-mail management.

With all that guidance, perhaps it's not surprising that IT managers do not rank e-mail management as a high priority. According to a survey of federal IT officials and staff published in November by the Association for Federal Information Resource Management, e-mail did not make the list of top IT challenges facing federal CIOs today. Even when asked to identify what they considered critical technologies, the survey respondents put e-mail at No. 14 out of a total of 23. Security was the top concern, but such issues as knowledge management, mobile computing and even the Next Generation Internet were bigger concerns.

The Web Forms Solution

One way to manage an increasing e-mail volume is to direct users to a Web page so that messages are automatically routed to the correct agency mailbox with subject information already appended. Agency "middlemen" do not have to handle the messages, a labor- intensive and time-consuming process.

Many congressional offices, however, have found that their constituents object to using Web forms to make electronic contact with lawmakers. But with e-government capabilities expanding, many federal agencies are expected to make greater use of Web-generated e-mail to communicate with the public.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is already heading in that direction. With 150,000 PCs strung on a seamless end-to-end network, VA officials had begun to see a 10 percent to 15 percent annual growth in the agency's internal e-mail traffic some six years ago, and have used that time to institute appropriate policies. But they are also faced with a potential avalanche of e-mail messages from military veteran "customers." Many veterans submit their queries via read-only Web pages or make applications for services via structured Web forms. But an increasing number of "unstructured" e-mail queries, such as complaints, are coming through the Web site, and they don't fit handily into any particular subject area. At first, the VA Webmaster separately routed the e-mail messages to the appropriate offices.

But the system had to change, said Alan Gohrband, the VA's associate deputy assistant secretary for IT policy and program assistance. So VA officials developed the Inquiry Routing and Information System (IRIS), a Web-based system that leads users through a series of drop-down topic lists and Web forms to match their queries with the most appropriate VA office.

VA managers are using IRIS to track the number of queries received — IRIS has handled 37,000 since September — and how quickly replies are sent. Although the number of inquiries are far fewer than the millions of telephone calls VA offices receive, Gohrband believes e-mail traffic is bound to increase as the population of tech-savvy veterans increases. Systems such as IRIS can probably manage e-mail traffic for another couple of years, but eventually more automated systems will be needed. As messages become increasingly complex, it will be more difficult to determine whether a message is a record that must be saved. Official records could become buried in a mass of informal correspondence, or the important e-mail messages could inadvertently be deleted.

"To really be able to iden.tify messages that need to be retained for 20 years, vs. those that can be deleted after just 90 days, will get harder," said Michael Miller, director of the modern records program at the National Archives and Records Administration. "The software that's out there now needs to be worked on fairly extensively by agencies for them to be able to do this. It's a very labor-intensive thing to make it fit."

Most agencies are only just beginning the pilot phase of testing software products, Miller said. And with each vendor taking its own approach to automated management, it's anybody's guess what the best solution will be.

NARA officials are testing a product called ForeMost Enterprise from TrueArc Inc., which uses a three-step process for records retention and disposition. ForeMost automatically tags records that users have marked for destruction or archiving, and then allows records managers to review them before action is taken. The software then destroys the appropriate e-mail messages and archives the ones that must be saved.

Other solutions are emerging as well (see "Help is on the way," below). But the challenge is to get government employees — who currently decide which e-mail messages to keep and which to erase — to use them.

Almost half of all congressional offices have software that can automatically sort messages and enter senders' names, addresses and other information into the offices' databases, according to the Congress Online Project. However, "fewer than 10 percent of all offices actually use it," according to the report.

In the end, it comes down to how prepared people are to take advantage of these tools. "I feel the technology is there, or soon will be," said AIIM International's Fanning. "But there has to be continual education about the issues of e-mail management, and to remind people that e-mail is a record that might need to be saved. And the whole process has to be made easy for them. If they feel it's too difficult, if it's not an intuitive thing for them, they won't do it."

Robinson is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore. He can be reached at hullite@ mindspring.com.

Colleen O'Hara and Judi Hasson con.tributed to this report.

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