NARA offers guidance on e-mail archiving

The National Archives and Records Administration has provided agencies with new guidance on how they should use e-mail archiving applications, NARA's action comes after the increasing proportion of official communications conducted through e-mail messages has caused government audits and spurred proposed legislation.

In a recent bulletin to agency leaders, NARA laid out the benefits and drawbacks of using e-mail archiving technology to retain electronic messages that qualify as records. Federal regulations require agencies to maintain and preserve e-mail messages with information that is worthy of being archived, but they do not specify that agencies do so by using electronic archive systems.

The NARA bulletin, released July 31, said agencies that adopt e-mail archiving applications as a means of official record-keeping must provide training and guidelines in order to ensure that all records are kept correctly.

The guidance also said NARA continues to monitor agencies’ use of the technology and to study e-mail archiving.

NARA said record-keeping systems that include e-mail must be able to group related records into different classifications; allow for easy and timely retrieval, retain records in a usable format for their approved retention period; be accessible, preserve transmission and receipt data, and permit the transfer of records to NARA as required by federal law.

In addition, NARA said the potential benefits of using an e-mail archiving application include more efficient storage of e-mail messages, enhanced capabilities to search records and help in back-up and recovery.

The bulletin also noted that because the technology is still developing and systems vary, e-mail archiving applications can weaken a records management program if:

•The application cannot group related records to meet requirements or maintain the records in a usable format.

•The application does not clearly distinguish between temporary and permanent records.

• The agency adopts e-mail archiving application while continuing a print and file policy causing confusion. thus possibly undermining compliance.

Patrice McDermott, director of OpenTheGovernment.org, who has testified before a House committee about what she sees as the need to reform federal electronic records management, called NARA's guidance useful and important.

“It should be viewed, though, as a stop-gap on the way to real e-records management, including for e-mail, that allows for the functionalities that NARA outlines,” she said. “Agencies should be discouraged from using e-mail archiving as a means to defer making a commitment to full e-records management.”

In a recent audit of the electronic records storage practices of four federal agencies, the Government Accountability Office found the agencies generally managed e-mail records through a paper-based process, rather than by electronic record-keeping.

In addition, GAO said in a report in June that guidance regarding electronic records was incomplete, and e-mail messages that qualified as records were not being appropriately identified and preserved for eight of the 15 senior officials those government auditors examined.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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