Records Management

Will 2016 be the year the government gets email under control?

file folders on a background with binary code

There is no shortage of senior government officials whose email practices generate media scandal and congressional investigations. But lost messages and private accounts could be a thing of the past under an Obama administration information management policy that requires agencies to manage all government email that qualifies as permanent or temporary records in electronic format.

That means agencies must have a way of retaining email records in an electronic system that allows for managing and retrieving records and supports litigation needs, open-government requests and other archival purposes.

According to a report released on Dec. 15 by the National Archives and Records Administration, 93 percent of records managers say they are on track to meet the goal of managing all email electronically by Dec. 31, 2016. There were a few laggards -- most notably the Commerce Department, which did not respond to repeated requests for records management updates -- but NARA said it received 84 reports, for a compliance rate of 94 percent.

"At this point, we're not aware of any agencies that definitively will not make it," Laurence Brewer, NARA’s acting chief records officer, told FCW. "The 2016 target is an important one. We do expect all agencies to meet that target. But we do realize that it may not be realistic for 100 percent of agencies given the complexities of their email systems [and] funding priorities, and of course, now we have a presidential transition that's looming."

Brewer said nearly 80 percent of agencies "report that they have policies and procedures to manage their email." In addition, a majority told NARA they plan to implement the agency's Capstone approach to email management, which identifies accounts of key senior officials and key job functions for automatic preservation.

The approach is designed to take some of the guesswork out of email management and push agencies into greater levels of automation. It also seeks to eliminate old-fashioned practices such as manually dragging selected emails into folders for preservation -- the digital equivalent of the print-to-file method.

"It's a way of taking records management out of the hands of the user and putting it behind the scenes where your IT identifies the roles and then uses the technology to capture the accounts," Brewer said.

NARA will know more about agencies’ progress toward meeting the 2016 goal after they complete the records management self-assessment survey on Jan. 29.      

"We have included very specific and additional questions related to email because it is going to be 2016," Brewer said.

NARA officials also intend to give agencies a clearer picture of what success looks like by releasing criteria early next year that tells agencies in more granular detail what they must do to meet the target.

NARA is growing to meet its new responsibilities. Under a 2014 update to federal records laws, the agency got new oversight and inspection authority. To support that, the Office of the Chief Records Officer has grown and reorganized, and NARA expanded its complement of employees with the technical expertise to help agency records officers delve into the details of email systems.

"Through all this, we hope to be able to provide more feedback to agencies and then be able to report out to you and others who have an interest" in agencies’ progress toward meeting that target, Brewer said.

A longtime official at NARA, Brewer is leading the agency on an acting basis. Paul Wester, the first person to hold the chief records officer title, stepped down in October. Brewer has deep roots in NARA and as a records management executive, so the agency does not appear to be missing a beat during the transition to a new chief records officer. The posting for the job has closed, and NARA officials said they hope to have the position filled by spring 2016.

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 and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, New York Press, Architect Magazine and other publications.

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


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