GAO Highlights Government Email Gaps

Washington watchdog finds holes in agencies' email strategies

April 25, 2008

3 Min Read
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There are glaring gaps in how key U.S. government agencies handle and store emails, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released yesterday.

Preliminary results of GAO’s review of email records management at four agencies show that not all are meeting the challenges posed by email records,” said the report, which examined the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Federal Trade Commission , and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Lack of adequate email retention was one of the GAO’s key findings. “For about half of the senior officials, e-mail records were not being appropriately identified and preserved,” stated the report, highlighting the lack of effective “recordkeeping” systems capable of classifying emails for swift retrieval.

The government’s use of email has been in the spotlight since the controversial firing of eight U.S. attorneys in 2007, when White House officials came under fire for their handling and alleged deletion of emails. A judge ordered the White House last year to keep backup copies of millions of emails that were allegedly deleted, and Congress has also probed the executive branch’s email management.

This week’s GAO report, which is part of testimony to the House of Representatives’ Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, paints a worrying picture of email management elsewhere in Washington.”Officials and their responsible staff had not always received training in the record-keeping requirements for email records,” wrote Linda Koontz, the GAO’s director of information management issues. “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.”

One of the watchdog’s most alarming findings was that agencies typically print out emails and store them in physical files, despite the recent advent of sophisticated e-discovery technologies.

GAO officials warn that printing copies of emails can lead to agencies storing multiple copies of the same message, both in paper and electronic format, resulting in unnecessary data storage.

The fallout from the White House email snafu has already prompted lawmakers to draft the Electronic Communications Preservation Act, which would force agencies to deploy electronic record management systems for emails, something Koontz applauds.

”Agencies recognize that devoting significant resources to creating paper records from electronic sources is not a viable long-term strategy and have accordingly begun to plan or implement such a system,” she wrote, but warned that these must be carefully managed to avoid unnecessary costs.The Electronic Communications Preservation Act, which is still at the bill stage, would place a four-year deadline on agencies to implement electronic record-keeping systems, finally forcing organizations to tackle shortcomings in their email strategies.

Currently, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is responsible for the oversight of federal records management, including email, although GAO officials found that agencies do not always comply with its guidance.

Specifically, the EPA and FTC did not instruct staff on the management and preservation of emails sent from nongovernmental email systems, such as commercial Web-based email systems. Elsewhere, the DHS’s email policies did not specify that draft documents circulated via email may be federal records.

Many of the 15 senior (yet unnamed) officials reviewed kept every email in their email systems, according to the GAO. “Several of these officials had thousands or even tens of thousands in their email message accounts,” wrote Koontz. “By keeping every message, they were potentially increasing the time and effort that would be needed to search through and review all the saved messages in response to a Freedom of Information Act [request].”

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