Some advice on e-mail records policy

Some advice on e-mail records policy

When is an agency e-mail message an official federal record that must be preserved? That is the question puzzling records managers as e-mail volume among and within agencies continues to grow exponentially.

Michael Kurtz, assistant archivist at the National Archives and Records Administration, said 95 percent of all agency e-mail messages are considered federal records, but only a small percentage need to be kept.

"Most e-mail is transitory in nature for setting up meetings or going to lunch," Kurtz said today at a meeting of the Federal Information and Records Managers' Council at the FOSE 2005 trade show in Washington. "This is an area of some contention or concern because of the public interest groups that want to save the records. We will work through it. Most e-mail should disposed of quickly and not entered into the file system."

Kurtz said NARA issued a draft policy in November to help agencies quickly dispose of e-mail records except for a small number that employees will continue to print and file until NARA finishes developing the Electronic Records Archive.

NARA is reviewing comments on the rule, which would let agencies leave short-term e-mail records on a live e-mail system as long as users do not delete the messages before the expiration of the NARA-approved retention period. Automatic deletion and retention rules would ensure preservation of only the important records.

Tim Sprehe, president of Sprehe Information Management Associates Inc. of Chevy Chase, Md., said only the intelligence agencies are managing e-mail well, because they spend money on training.

"Agencies should take e-mail out of the hands of users," he said. "Records managers and IT workers should devise a solution that determines what a record is. They could do sampling and quality control and develop business rules, but you can't ask the end user to make a record manager's decision."

Sprehe spent 10 years with the Office of Management and Budget, where he worked in the information policy office and authored OMB Circular A-130, the governmentwide policy directive on management of federal information resources.

Chris O'Donnell, the records manager for the Environmental Protection Agency, said agencies should look into auto-categorization software to improve their records management.

Sprehe said that type of software applies business rules to text and decides whether a record needs to be kept. He added, however, "This type of technology is not ready for prime time. If you use it for 30 million pieces of e-mail, the software may decide that 90 percent is not records, and the other 10 percent would be up the records manager. It can't be 100 percent accurate."

Chris Olson, the CIA's records manager, said the government should set up a center of excellence for records handling so agencies do not explore the same technologies over and over.

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