Deleting the Pileup

Sunday, August 12, 2007

AFEW DAYS into 2008, a whole lot of saved-up e-mail is going to vanish from the District's computer system. That's when the city's pilot policy on e-mail retention, announced July 5 with little fanfare, goes into effect. Between now and then, city officials say, employees are supposed to go through their e-mail, saving the messages they think need to be kept -- and then the Office of the Chief Technology Officer clicks "delete" for the rest. Every six months after that, the policy says, all e-mail -- "regardless of agency, sender, recipient, or any other attribute -- will be deleted automatically and permanently from the D.C. Government email system."

The management of virtual mountains of e-mail has emerged as a major issue for corporations and governments, and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's administration deserves credit for tackling it. Every e-mail generated in a government agency -- even "I'll get back to you" -- could be an official record. But data storage space is limited, and a city could go bankrupt if it tried to save every e-mail forever. The new policy could save $1.2 million over the next three years, District officials tell us. Without clear policies on e-mail disposal, the city could be accused of covering up information and be forced to pay large penalties every time litigants don't find what they want during "e-discovery" in lawsuits against the District.

We're less certain that the administration has drawn the line in the right place. It's not that the proposed cutoff period of six months is unreasonable. Rather, the question is whether all e-mail should be treated the same. It's one thing for a private-sector entity to enunciate a one-size-fits-all rule for its offices and divisions. Government is different: The public has legitimate concerns about access to official proceedings, and those concerns may differ by agency. Also, the risk of litigation may vary. The city's new policy provides for some preservation of e-mail from the mayor's office and agency heads, for historical purposes. It permits an exception to the six-month destruction rule when a particular agency has been notified that it faces a lawsuit, but this is reactive. The policy may create an incentive for employees to keep their own uncontrolled copies of e-mails longer than six months, a phenomenon known as "underground archiving."

Other jurisdictions have attempted a more differentiated approach. In Virginia each state agency is urged to develop its own e-mail retention period on the basis of the content of the records it generates. Michigan's policy declares: "E-mail messages must be evaluated for their content and purpose to determine the length of time the message must be retained." It's potentially more labor-intensive to do it that way, but these states believe they save over the long term. Fortunately, as a pilot program, the District's new policy can be changed if it proves inflexible.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company