How agencies can keep email from vanishing

By Marty Heinrich posted 08-18-2014 10:48


Recent headlines surrounding the loss of emails at the IRS highlight major concerns over records management in government. One of the biggest challenges agencies face today, besides the skyrocketing volume of email, is how to effectively retain and manage email records based on regulatory and legal requirements.   

The problems with archiving government email are well documented:

  • Email storage limits require government employees to either purge their accounts when they hit the network space limit or move email to local storage.
  • Backed-up emails are not retained indefinitely.
  • Email is sometimes printed to retain as a record, even though this is impractical.
  • Employees often lack knowledge to determine which of their emails are official records. 
  • Official correspondence is sometimes conducted from employees’ personal email accounts.
  • Records management apps that do not support both office and mobile platforms may contribute to leakage.

Congress and the public demand that these problems be fixed in order to stop the loss of government records. The solution lies in the education and awareness of records management policies and the implementation of systems that enable the preservation and discovery of email records. Agencies must retain and manage all email records according to agency policies, allowing them to be searched for litigation and investigative purposes.

The first critical requirement is the capture of all email, including that which was created on mobile devices. Because of the sheer volume of email and the hurdle for employees to identify records, automation is a must. There are two primary options:

Capture all emails (unless marked as personal) in an archive. This approach aligns with the National Archives and Records Administration’s Capstone Guidance on a New Approach to Managing Email Records, with a role-based approach to email records management.  

Leverage technology to automatically identify and retain email records. This approach captures and categorizes email according to the content of the email. Rules-based auto-categorization looks for specific words or phrases; the presence of that word or phrase tells the rules engine where to categorize the record.

An alternative is pattern-matching categorization software, which is trained to recognize and classify documents. People train the system by providing a series of model documents that are considered to be representative of a category. The system “learns” what the documents contain and then attempts to recognize and categorize email and other records according to the category they most resemble Establishing simplified “big bucket” record schedules is an important enabler for the successful use of these technologies as it reduces the number of categories that the software must evaluate and the amount of training required. 

Another approach that helps ensure the capture of all email is journaling, which creates a copy of all email at the time of creation or receipt. With journaling, an original email message that matches a predefined journal rule is included unaltered. The body of each journaled email contains information from the original message, such as the sender email address, message subject, message-ID and recipient email addresses. Journaling also captures all email attachments in their original format. Once captured, journaled emails may can be deduplicated, enhanced with metadata and moved to a record archive.

Several agencies are moving their email and records to the cloud, virtually eliminating mailbox size limitations and the need for (Personal Storage Table) files. A major benefit of the cloud model is that all email is in one place vs. across multiple email servers. Therefore, it can more easily be searched, processed and archived. The cloud model also minimizes the risk of email loss due to local hard drive failure.

Search is a critical component of any email archiving solution. Investigations, Freedom of Information Act requests and public demand that agencies produce requested email completely and with precision. For example, an agency may be asked to produce all emails on a topic and date range for an employee.

Finally, the solution must provide for the destruction of temporary records and the transfer of permanent records to NARA according to agency record retention schedules.

There are several critical success factors for the successful management of email records, including:

  • Records managers must team with IT to define solution requirements.
  • Funding is sorely needed for the implementation of electronic records solutions. 
  • Education is needed in order to raise awareness of policy and employee responsibilities for the preservation of email records.
  • Added oversight and penalties are needed to ensure compliance with applicable laws and statutes.

With the right policies and supporting records management solutions, agencies will begin to solve the email retention problems making headlines.


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