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A critical moment for crafting a sensible email policy

Shutterstock image (by Markus Gann): flying email envelopes.

Trust and transparency in government are essential components of a responsible democracy. We expect our government agencies to pursue policies not because they are easy -- or even an uneasy compromise -- but because they promote responsible outcomes for the public.

In the past year, we’ve seen more attention paid to government email than ever before. The politically charged controversies around the events in Benghazi and choices about tax-exempt status at the Internal Revenue Service have both emerged as the result of dramatic email trails. And such trails are now all but inevitable: Email communication has become the most common way to convey information and promote timely collaboration across the globe for businesses and government.

The earlier flurry over Hillary Clinton’s disappearing messages also underlines the importance that the technology holds in today’s modern world. Yet the difficulty of screening email content and storing the growing volume of messages has led the federal government to narrow its email records policy.

The government is proposing that agencies preserve general email for seven years and permanently preserve only top-level executives’ messages.  That policy would be at odds with other federal records-retention requirements, which are based on pertinence to an agency’s mission and business functions.

Why is this important? The short answer is to ensure transparency into agency decisions. The perception that a senior executive’s email is more likely to have permanent historical value than a staffer’s email does not negate the value of non-executive messages. In fact, as agencies put forward their email retention plans, many oversight organizations are going on record with convincing arguments to that effect. Those arguments, however, do not yet address a key issue: the limitations of existing policy.

Late last year, the Federation of American Scientists objected to a proposed CIA email retention policy that it said threatened to obliterate valuable evidence of how key CIA decisions were made. Hidden in plain sight in a Federal Register notice, that proposal also caught the attention of 17 other watchdog organizations, including the ACLU, which responded with a letter to the National Archives and Records Administration protesting the CIA’s proposal.

A range of organizations, from the government to the media, took momentary interest, but most focused on the CIA and the potential damage to the historical record and the possibility for litigation.

Although such interest in the pursuit of democracy and government transparency is healthy, the narrow focus failed to address the larger issue of overall federal policy guidance. The CIA plan -- and related Department of Homeland Security proposals -- are actually aligned with the most recent guidance on email retention provided by NARA, whose role it is to issue policy on government records management.

Clearly, the public values the importance of government email, or the media wouldn’t continue to pounce on stories of messages potentially gone astray. The issue of email preservation is difficult to negotiate, however, and is especially complicated because it embodies the shift toward predominantly digital communications.

Traditionally, records management looks backward to secure our physical communications and preserve our history. In fact, some agencies’ current approach to email records is to print them out and preserve the printed copies. Technology is turning that approach on its head. It is now possible to digitize all communication and store it permanently -- but only as permanently as an agency’s policy allows.

As agencies formulate their email policies and consider technology options to meet the 2016 deadline for electronic email records set by a White House directive, now is the time for NARA to reconsider its email guidance, known as Capstone. By combining the requirements for retaining executive email with existing guidance on retaining email with mission-critical content, NARA could resolve the apparent contradiction for agencies.

Oversight and watchdog organizations’ constant vigilance on such matters, and their practical experience with the types and content of controversial or highly pertinent email communication, could help link agency email records policy to reality.

Although email is not the only historical record, it frequently reveals significant contextual information not available in other formats. Email provides valuable insight into decision-making and mission execution that are simply not captured elsewhere. Stakeholder groups have already made clear and compelling arguments that would support NARA’s expansion of Capstone to require agencies to consider email content, rather than the recipient or sender, and NARA has reached out to be more inclusive of stakeholders on that issue.

Now is the time to take full advantage of the opportunity to support a more inclusive email retention policy that capitalizes on technology advances to provide a responsible, historical record.

About the Authors

Carol Brock is vice president of information governance at the IQ Business Group and former director of information assets at the Government Accountability Office.

Patricia Burke is the public sector industry strategist at OpenText.

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