Records management

Staying out of the email hot seat

Image courtesy of ARMA NOVA: Paul Wester.

NARA's Paul Wester said his agency is working on detailed guidance to help feds better manage email records.

When federal records policies make headlines, it's usually bad news.

Records officers have not been ignoring the drumbeat of news stories about the missing email messages of former IRS official Lois Lerner, who is the target of a congressional probe into the way the agency grants tax-exempt status to activist groups.

A standing-room-only crowd that included scores of feds crammed into an Aug. 20 Digital Government Institute conference on records management, looking for guidance on how to comply with federal records requirements on agency email and other electronic media.

Paul Wester, chief records officer at the National Archives and Records Administration, used a photograph of him taking the oath at a July hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee as a cautionary tale for feds.

"If you don't want to have to stand before Congressman [Darrell] Issa with your hand raised, touching the chin of God, get your email under control," Wester said.

Feds are facing a looming email management deadline. By the end of 2016, agencies must be able to manage permanent and temporary email records "in an accessible electronic format," according to an Office of Management and Budget directive. That means an end to the cumbersome print-and-file mode used by many top officials in government and an end to manually dragging and dropping email messages and files into computer folders.

Records officers have plenty of policy guidance thanks to NARA's Capstone template on capturing agency email based on the rank of the account owner and the probability that his or her work involves the creation of permanent records. But there is less information about how to use IT to support email retention.

"We need to do a lot more work in the area of procurement and technology," Wester said. "We're in a bad position when we can tell you what to do [and] why you need to do it, and then you say, 'Tell me how to do it,' and we throw our hands up in the air or we say, 'That's what you guys need to figure out.'"

NARA is working on advanced guidance, due to be released in fiscal 2015, to provide more specificity for users of Microsoft, Google Apps for Government and other email clients. At the urging of Issa, NARA is also planning to produce a more concise version of the requirements for agencies to use in developing and executing email management policies.

One model agencies can look to is the Interior Department, which introduced an enterprisewide, cloud-based records management protocol using Google at its 14 bureaus and offices as part of an overall streamlining of technology. In the process of rewriting a 15-year-old records management policy, the agency consolidated a system with 200 records schedules and 2,330 distinct retention periods for different types of records and settled on a single schedule with 37 lines of business and 189 retention periods.

Interior's system uses artificial intelligence processes to identify email messages, documents and other records for retention and preservation. That approach supports sharing documents with Congress, NARA, the Justice Department, open-government requestors and the executive branch, said John Montel, who leads information management at Interior.

"You're able to get to that information and get to it consistently and not have to leverage human intervention," Montel said. "It might not do it correctly [every time], but it does it incorrectly consistently, which is a defensible position."

NARA has also issued guidance on how to write email management specifications into cloud contracts, but agencies have been slow to follow.

"We need to do more in that area, frankly," Wester told FCW after his presentation. "That's one of the areas where we need to figure out how to partner more effectively with OMB and with the agencies so they understand what their requirements are and figure out if there are ways we can more easily and more simply...explain what they need to do."

There's leverage to be found in negative events like the IRS scandal, Wester said. But even without the horror stories, agencies are increasingly thinking about email and other kinds of content "as a business asset that needs to be managed as opposed to ephemeral kinds of things that don't need to be kept," he said.

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy, health IT and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mr. Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian started his career as an arts reporter and critic, and has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, Architect magazine, and other publications. He was an editorial assistant and staff writer at the now-defunct New York Press and arts editor at the About.com online network in the 1990s, and was a weekly contributor of music and film reviews to the Washington Times from 2007 to 2014.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.


The Fed 100

Read the profiles of all this year's winners.

Featured

  • Then-presidential candidate Donald Trump at a 2016 campaign event. Image: Shutterstock

    'Buy American' order puts procurement in the spotlight

    Some IT contractors are worried that the "buy American" executive order from President Trump could squeeze key innovators out of the market.

  • OMB chief Mick Mulvaney, shown here in as a member of Congress in 2013. (Photo credit Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

    White House taps old policies for new government makeover

    New guidance from OMB advises agencies to use shared services, GWACs and federal schedules for acquisition, and to leverage IT wherever possible in restructuring plans.

  • Shutterstock image (by Everett Historical): aerial of the Pentagon.

    What DOD's next CIO will have to deal with

    It could be months before the Defense Department has a new CIO, and he or she will face a host of organizational and operational challenges from Day One

  • USAF Gen. John Hyten

    General: Cyber Command needs new platform before NSA split

    U.S. Cyber Command should be elevated to a full combatant command as soon as possible, the head of Strategic Command told Congress, but it cannot be separated from the NSA until it has its own cyber platform.

  • Image from Shutterstock.

    DLA goes virtual

    The Defense Logistics Agency is in the midst of an ambitious campaign to eliminate its IT infrastructure and transition to using exclusively shared, hosted and virtual services.

  • Fed 100 logo

    The 2017 Federal 100

    The women and men who make up this year's Fed 100 are proof positive of what one person can make possibile in federal IT. Read on to learn more about each and every winner's accomplishments.

Reader comments

Mon, Aug 25, 2014

In the IRS's case, the email problems appear to be no accident, but intentional. I think any stories trying to say otherwise, are more part of the coverup than to serve a useful purpose.

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group