GAO: Government Needs Better E-Mail Management

The report was presented to the Senate Subcommittee on Information Policy, Census, and National Archives and the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform by Linda Koontz, director of information management issues for the GAO.

Koontz wrote that, starting in April of last year, the GAO reviewed e-mail records management at four government agencies including the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and found that their management policies for the most part addressed the guidance of the Federal Records Act and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

Each of the four agencies generally followed a print and file practice in order to preserve e-mail records, but the records for about half of their senior officials were not appropriately identified before filing, preventing easy and timely retrieval of groups of related records as well as individual records, Koontz wrote.

This problem was exacerbated by the large volume of both record and non-record e-mail messages handled by those agencies, as well as inadequate staff support and lack of training of both the officials and their staffs, she wrote.

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"If recordkeeping requirements are not followed, agencies cannot be assured that records, including information that is essential to protecting the rights of individuals and the federal government, is (sic) being adequately identified and preserved," she wrote.

Under the Federal Records Act, federal agencies must "make and preserve records that (1) document the organization, functions, policies, decisions, procedures, and essential transactions of the agency and (2) provide the information necessary to protect the legal and financial rights of the government and of persons directly affected by the agency's activities," Koontz wrote.

Under NARA regulations, e-mails must be accessible and usable during their useful lives, and government agencies whose e-mail systems do not have the needed record-keeping features much copy them to a separate record-keeping system or print them out and file them.

The report on government management comes at a time when Congress is considering adopting H.R. 5811, the Electronic Communications Preservation Act, proposed in part in response to the potential loss of millions of White House e-mails between 2003 and 2005.