E-Mail Retention: Not So Good

Charles Davis
July 9, 2008 — 1,129 views  
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Federal officials inconsistently preserve government e-mail, creating gaps in the public record and making it difficult for the public to understand the activities of the government, according to a report released by the Government Accountability Office yesterday.

The report came before a scheduled House vote today on a bill that would create standards for the electronic storage of e-mail by federal agencies.

As the use of e-mail has increased dramatically, federal agencies are struggling to determine which e-mails can be deleted, which must be preserved as public records and how those records should be stored.

Current law gives agencies broad discretion to determine how electronic records and communications are maintained. Quality varies widely, according to the GAO.

Investigators looked at four agencies -- the Homeland Security Department, the Federal Trade Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Housing and Urban Development -- and found that all used an inefficient and insecure process of "print and file": printing e-mails and storing them in paper form. Only one agency, the EPA, was converting to an electronic system to store e-mail records.

Charles Davis

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Charles N. Davis is an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and the executive director for the National Freedom of Information Coalition, headquartered at the School. Davis' scholarly research focuses on access to governmental information and new media law, including jurisdictional issues, intellectual property and online libel. He has earned a Sunshine Award from the Society of Professional Journalists for his work in furthering freedom of information and the University of Missouri-Columbia Provost's Award for Outstanding Junior Faculty Teaching, as well as the Faculty-Alumni Award.