E-mail rules could be relaxed

National Archives and Records Administration officials have proposed revising federal e-mail policies, permitting agency officials to discard some e-mail messages after a limited time without preserving copies of them.

The proposed rule represents a significant shift from current e-mail retention policies, which some federal records managers find burdensome. But public interest group officials, who have opposed federal electronic records policies in the past, said the proposed rule change could result in important historical records being lost.

Published Nov. 3 in the Federal Register, the rule would permit agency officials "to dispose of short-term temporary electronic mail records ...without requiring the creation of a separate paper or electronic recordkeeping copy."

Temporary e-mail records are defined as "routine requests for information" or other messages whose content is unrelated to any official actions of agency managers. As a general rule, short-term, temporary e-mail records must be kept for 90, 120 or 180 days.

Some records management experts view the proposal as an improvement over current policies, which they say go too far in favor of saving everything. "I always regret when they wander down the path of trying to codify the ephemeral," said Jeanne Young, a private consultant and former Federal Reserve archivist and records management specialist. "It's like calling junk mail 'records.'"

But she said she disagrees with NARA officials' decision to have specific retention periods in the proposed rule. "If they weren't worrying about this kind of minutiae, they'd have more time and energy and other financial resources to spend on really important records, which is their primary mission."

The proposed change seems reasonable, said Patrice McDermott, deputy director of the American Library Association's Office of Government Relations. But officials must be certain the retention schedules are appropriate, she said.

"And that's where the devil's in the details," McDermott said. She praised NARA officials for including examples of short-term records and disposition schedules.

A member of Public Citizen, a nonprofit public interest group, expressed skepticism about the proposed rule change. Supreme Court justices declined to hear the case of Public Citizen v. Carlin in 2000, ending the public interest organization's legal efforts to force government agencies to save all electronic records, including e-mail messages in their original formats. Public Citizen had sued the government over NARA's electronic records policy, which at the time permitted agency officials to delete certain electronic records as long as copies were printed and saved.

Public Citizen officials said they would likely submit comments on the proposed rule during the comment period, which runs until Jan. 3, 2005.

"To me, the difficulty with this type of policy is that I think it's likely to be treated by the agencies as license to dispose of e-mails on a routine basis that may in fact be federal records," said Scott Nelson, an attorney with the Public Citizen Litigation Group.

"What's happening in the federal agencies is that permanent records are being lost," he said. "Sending this type of signal is likely to increase the loss of information."

He added that records of meeting schedules may be of historical substance and should be kept, contrary to the proposed rule.

Temporary records affected

Under a rule proposed by National Archives and Records Administration officials, the following types of e-mail records could be deleted without keeping permanent copies on paper or in an electronic format:

* Routine requests for information that require no administrative action, policy decisions or special research.

* Originating office copies of transmittal letters that do not add information beyond that contained in the transmitted material.

* Routine notifications of meetings and work-related trips and visits.

* Quasi-official notices or other records that do not serve as the basis for official actions, such as notices of holidays.

* Tickler files and to-do or task lists that serve as reminders that actions are required by certain dates.

Source: National Archives and Records Administration

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