Meeting the Government’s Email Challenge

Free and equal access to government records is essential to this country’s democracy.  Citizens have the right to see, examine, and learn from the records that guarantee their rights, document government actions, and tell the story of the nation. As Archivist of the United States, it is my job to make sure we identify, save, and make available the permanently valuable records of the U.S. Government. It’s also my job to instruct federal agencies on how to make this “what to keep” decision for records ranging from memos written on old onion-skin paper and stored in filing cabinets to electronic records, including email. This is especially important as the volume of electronic records continues to grow.

What should be saved? Not all or even most federal records make the cut as permanent records. Literally billions of government email records are created each year.  Some are clearly worth saving as permanent records in the National Archives. Many others, which document basic business and administrative activities, are needed for some period of time before they can be deleted.  And still others, such as lunch plans and routine notifications of meetings, can be deleted immediately.

Records Arriving at the National Archives Building, 1935. National Archives Identifier 7820503

The responsibility – and honor – of preserving and providing access to historical federal records rests with the National Archives. However, this work begins within the walls of each federal agency, supported by the National Archives.  Our experts develop guidance, recommendations, and solutions to address the recordkeeping challenge. We provide extensive training and direct counsel for records managers at all federal agencies.

Recently our Records Management leaders met with all agency recordkeeping officials to discuss their responsibilities and how they can best meet the challenges of managing email records. By some estimates, over 100 billion emails are sent and received by the private sector every day; we estimate that the government produces over 40 billion emails a year.

Until recently, the best approach was for each federal employee to decide which of their emails were valuable and then to print out and file these emails manually, or save them electronically. This is the same thing they are supposed to do with all other records they create or receive.  The reality, however, is that few people have the time or expertise to sort and file each and every email consistently, numerous times a day.

For this reason, the National Archives has asked the software industry to create automated systems, which take personal decision making out of the process, to capture electronic records and separate the permanent from the temporary.  In the meantime, our staff has created an approach for email management called Capstone. Under Capstone, an agency designates a number of senior officials as Capstone officials, and saves all of their email as permanent records.  All other agency employees’ emails are viewed as temporary and are saved for an appropriate period of time. We’re now using Capstone at the National Archives and will base our guidance on real-world experiences.

Since 2011, we have worked closely with the White House to require all agencies to adopt Capstone or a comparable approach for managing emails by 2016. Congress has also helped by passing new amendments to the Federal Records Act and the Presidential Records Act late last year to modernize these recordkeeping statutes. Most notably, the law now requires officials who use a non-official email account (which only should be done as a last resort) to copy or forward those emails into their official account within 20 days, or be subject to disciplinary action.

The challenge of electronic recordkeeping is not unique to the federal government; universities, corporations, and privately owned businesses all wrestle with similar issues.  But the challenges are clear:  the volume of electronic records being created is enormous; providing access to these records is difficult and critical; and forecasting what will be “historically important” requires a blend of art and science. These are the challenges and opportunities that compel records and information management professionals. The National Archives is an essential resource to other agencies – we provide training, guidance, and structure for modernizing and reforming records management.  Federal agencies must follow our lead to ensure that our National Treasures – in paper and electronic form – are saved for future generations.


3 thoughts on “Meeting the Government’s Email Challenge

  1. The posting says:

    ” Under Capstone, an agency designates a number of senior officials as Capstone officials, and saves all of their email as permanent records. All other agency employees’ emails are viewed as temporary and are saved for an appropriate period of time.”

    However, the DRAFT Schedule (6.1) is in conflict with this statement. It’s NOT ALL… in fact, the introduction discusses the “culling” of Capstone accounts, “to the greatest extent possible” to exclude non-record, personal or transitory AND attachments.

    Then, it goes on to say “Agencies have the discretion to designate individual email messages and attachments as short-term or transitory records covered by another GRS or as permanent or longer-term temporary records covered by another GRS or an agency records schedule.”

    In addition, Item 11 is the first place “and contractors…” is mentioned, yet in many cases, Contractors to Agencies have LARGE NUMBERS of officials in positions equivalent to Federal employees, and MANY Agency schedules currently require retention of “similar level Contractor Officials” to be retained as Senior Officials records. For NARA to state these should be deleted after 7 years “…but longer retention is authorized if required for business use.” makes absolutely NO SENSE.

    What if the subject matter of the email is related to hazardous materials exposure, environmental issues, nuclear materials, or other items that have a seriously longer retention in various schedules… in some cases 75 years or Permanent?

    The whole concept of scheduling records based on the manner in which they are conveyed (electronic mail) or by the “container” rather than the “Content:” goes completely against the grain of what Records Management Practices and Appraisal of Content has taught RM Professionals for over 6 decades.

    Why all of the sudden is there such a “rush” to change practices, simply based on the volume of records being generated?

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