E-mail can spell trouble for unprepared government agencies

As millions more e-mail messages clog government inboxes, the legal consequences of e-mail delivery and storage have become a bigger issue for government agencies, an attorney who specializes in record retention cases said.

Agencies must follow strict rules dictated by the National Archives and Records Administration on retaining and archiving records, including e-mail that previously was considered casual communication.

Although there aren’t many cases where agencies have breached those rules, an increasing reliance on e-mail could make following them and fulfilling things like Freedom of Information Act requests more complicated, said David S. Cohen, a partner and co-founder of Cohen Mohr LLP in Washington.

“Some of the rules are counter-intuitive,” Cohen said yesterday at a seminar sponsored by Storage Technology Corp. of Louisville, Colo. “They’re sometimes complex. But they’re becoming increasingly important.”

He said an average 36 billion messages circulate throughout government agencies each year. And once employees hit “send,” they lose control over where a message eventually lands. “E-mail is treated too informally by most e-mail users,” said Cohen, urging government users to assume each e-mail they send could end up on the front page of The New York Times. “If you live by this rule, you will avoid mistakes.”

He said good agencywide e-mail practices involve comprehensive management programs, easy retrieval systems, folder size limits, and retention time lines and rules.

“The government has the same problems with e-mail and litigation as private firms do,” Cohen said.

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