U.S. chief records officer details federal e-mail record-keeping programs

June 16, 2013

After the Associated Press reported this month that some Obama Cabinet officials have used alternative e-mail accounts in addition to government addresses to conduct federal business, The Washington Post talked with the National Archives and Records Administration about it and what’s new in the world of electronic recordkeeping.

Paul M. Wester Jr. is chief records officer for the archives agency and the first person to hold the job, which was created in 2011. He issues policy and guidance to federal agencies on which records they must keep and for how long, with an emphasis on electronic records, including the vast trove of e-mail created by federal officials.

Q: The White House has defended the use of “secret”
e-mail accounts as sensible time management, since high-level officials are swamped with unwanted messages. Does the practice make it harder for agencies to find and turn over e-mails under public records requests and other inquiries?

A: That’s my reading of it. We’ve been pretty clear with agencies it is not a good practice to follow, and we don’t recommend that they authorize the use of personal e-mail accounts or alias accounts to conduct their business. There’s a higher probability the e-mails wouldn’t be documented properly with their broader recordkeeping systems.

If you don’t have the personal-use or alias accounts accounted for, you run a higher risk of not being as responsive as you need to be for [the Freedom of Information Act] or other document requests.

To the extent that an agency does allow alias e-mails, they need to do whatever they can to make sure that material gets put into an appropriate recordkeeping system.

We’re actually doing revisions now to some of our materials to get at this more specficially. It’s going to be more specifically outlined than before.

Q: How widespread throughout government is this use of alias e-mail accounts?

A: I don’t know how widespread it is. There are some instances where these accounts are covered by other recordkeeping systems within an agency.

Q: Is NARA’s guidance on
e-mails part of a larger mission for federal agencies in the electronic era?

A: We work with 270 agencies across the government, from the [Defense Department] to the ­Marine Mammal Commission. They’re all covered by the Federal Records Act.

Agencies have to propose the disposition of their records — whether they’re going to be kept forever or eventually thrown out.

Three to 5 percent are historically valuable records that future generations would want to save, like correspondence from a high-level agency official, in and out materials they create. Or high-level policy documents that show decision making within an agency.

Most records are born electronically these days. It’s not just e-mails.

Q: So, given that so much government business is transacted through e-mail, how are you addressing the retention of e-mail records?

A: E-mail is covered by the Federal Records Act as a government record. It’s created and received in the conduct of federal business. Like every record, the agency must have procedures in place to manage e-mail. Either it’s part of the 95 to 97 percent of its records the agency keeps or the 3 to 5 percent. We give the agencies the authority to manage those records.

Q: Are there particular challenges with e-mail records?

A: The challenge is the volume. Even if you look at the e-mail of a senior agency official, there’s stuff in there about making lunches and picking up a loaf of bread on the way home. We’re going to capture them anyway. Many of these e-mails have attachments.

Q: What are the government’s goals for retaining e-mail and other electronic records? Are there any new policies in place?

A: We have a Managing Government Records directive that came out in 2011. By the end of 2016, all agencies need to manage e-mail in automated, electronic ways.

Right now, they print out e-mails often as a way of saving them and store them in hard-copy file systems. The long-term goal is to have more and more of this content managed electronically — social media databases, everything.

The second major part of the directive is holding agencies to account on managing their records more effectively. Right now, agencies have records officers. Some are senior people, some are not. We’re calling for senior agency officials, preferably at the assistant secretary level, for those jobs to raise the profile of records and information management.

Q: Does this higher-profile role for electronic records management address e-mail?

A: Yes. By the end of this calendar year, we’re going to issue new guidance on e-mails. The notion is, all e-mails should be captured. Certain people in an organization are called “capstone” officials: Their e-mails are permanent. One of the things we’re looking at is having a schedule that identifies certain senior positions within the agency and the e-mail accounts for them, the assistants to them; those would be presumed to be permanent, captured and transferred to the archives.

For other managers, we would all have some level of agreement on whose e-mails are captured and for how long. They may have seven-year retentions, for example. The idea is that we wouldn’t be on the hook for maintaining the e-mail of a GS-7 who does important work, but it’s not worth saving for that many years.

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