Image by: Shing Lok Che, ©2016 Getty Images

On April 6, 2016, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) released its "Criteria for Managing Email Records in Compliance with the Managing Government Records Directive (M-12-18)." NARA’s outlined success criteria are aimed at federal government agencies, which have been directed to manage all of their email records in an electronic format by December 31, 2016. It was issued to “provide clarification of the existing requirements” and to help agencies meet the aforementioned 2016 deadline.

The criteria are categorized into four groups:
  • Policies
  • Systems
  • Access
  • Disposition
While agencies may have requirements that go beyond NARA’s four categories of success criteria, it is worth noting that the debate over deletion is not over; indeed, it has just begun. The success criterion of disposition, as laid out by NARA, specifies that an agency has “identified appropriate retention periods for email records” and has a NARA-approved schedule in place to carry out that requirement. However, ample uncertainty—if not confusion—still abounds when deciding what to delete, especially when it comes to email.

The debate over deletion is not over; indeed, it has just begun.

The 2014 amendments to the Federal Records Act (FRA) made modest changes, most notably updating the definition of a record to include “all recorded information [...] created, manipulated, communicated, or stored in digital or electronic form” (44 U.S.C. 3301). Since every agency is legally obligated to create and maintain documentation of its organization, functions, and activities, there should be a method to distinguish agency records from non-records, such as personal email. Typically, this distinction is left up to the government employee to determine which emails are personal and when to delete them. However, if an individual’s intent is to deprive another party the use of a record’s information in litigation, agencies are required to take reasonable steps to preserve electronically stored information, such as email.

Some information governance professionals would like to see restrictions around limiting personal emails on work-related accounts, but, more likely than not, users will circumvent their way to convenience. Then, there are the analytics professionals who want to keep everything—the “more is better” approach—which is in contrast to many recordkeeping principles and legal requirements. Still, one commonality exists from both ends of the spectrum—when and what to delete.

To meet deadlines and requirements, organizations need to develop the criteria for deleting emails so that the debate for deciding what to delete can be culled. Methods such as the Capstone approach, which capture entire email accounts for senior officials or key individuals, may not be feasible to apply for all agency employees, but certain emails are needed to document the activity of the organization. The adoption of multi-tiered approaches that satisfy the right policies—where transient emails are disposed of properly and relevant emails are retained—coupled with audit trails that delineate the history of an email, may prove advantageous. With all of the amendments and legal precedents that make almost every email discoverable, even the most defensible policy remains open to interpretation.

Jamaal Davis is a senior records manager with Savan Group, LLC and is a recognized industry consultant. He has extensive experience developing records processes and working with records systems. He is a US Navy veteran with over 10 years of records management experience in the federal government and private sector. For more information, visit or follow @savangroup.

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