NARA tries to improve email preservation

After two decades of email communications, many agencies still print and file paper copies of messages they need to keep.

Image of file folders

Many agencies subject to the Federal Records Act print and file emails that they need to preserve. (File photo)

The National Archive and Records Administration will release in the coming days a bulletin to agencies describing new processes for managing email records as part of a plan to have all such communications handled electronically by the end of 2016.

Dubbed Capstone, the plan is designed to take some of the guesswork out of preserving agency emails that qualify as permanent records under federal law.

Under Capstone, emails from senior agency officials, personnel dubbed "mission centric," and public affairs staff will be presumptively classified as permanent, and automatically stored.

"Our thinking here is that there are pockets within agencies we can identify and target and use tools against to capture email and declare it permanent , preserve it, and make it available," Chief Records Officer Paul Wester said at a Digital Government Institute 930Gov conference on Aug. 21.

NARA has "voluminous and complete" email records from the White House and agencies covered by the Presidential Records Act, but it's a different story at agencies under the Federal Records Act. Currently, most agencies print and file paper copies of emails that qualify as permanent records. Agencies that have electronic filing still require that users drag-and-drop relevant emails into a special folder. These filing systems are being applied inconsistently across agencies, Wester said.

The kinds of email sorting tools needed to accomplish this task are already in use for legal discovery, compliance with Congressional oversight and answering Freedom of Information Act requests. NARA plans to explain the technical demands of its policy direction to vendors at an industry event Sept. 10.

NARA is testing Capstone on its own email -- a cloud-based Google system that connects with BlackBerry. The archival functionality described by Capstone should be able to be built into cloud email services because of existing records management requirements built into federal contracts. Additionally, Wester said that he expects the next revision of the A-130 circular from the Office of Management and Budget to add language including cloud and applications services language to the records management requirements for federal information systems.

There are concerns that Capstone will gather personally identifiable information on users that will be folded into publicly available records. Another concern is the archiving of a large quantity of extraneous, non-record emails. Wester worries about the proliferation of "pick up milk on the way home" emails in the archive. "We have to figure out how to tease that out. That's going to be the bigger technology issue," Wester said.

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