On June 6, 2013, the US National Archives and Records Administration published a call for comments on its draft Bulletin regarding a proposed “Capstone” approach to email retention at federal agencies. NARA was having technical problems with its comment system when I tried to submit my comments, so based on their instructions I have submitted my comments to them directly by email, and I am also posting them here.
You can find the request for comment and the draft Bulletin on NARA’s website.
Feedback on NARA’s Capstone Email Records Management Bulletin
As requested, I am providing comments on the “Capstone” approach to email management outlined in the June 6, 2013 draft NARA Bulletin provided above. Thank-you for the opportunity to provide input on this important issue.
I am the founder and principal of an information governance consulting firm based in New York. Since 2001 I have advised many organizations and government agencies on the development and implementation of email retention strategies.
Based on my experience and research, I believe that most organizations currently fall into one of two email records management camps.
The first camp does very little. While they may impose mailbox size limitations, they provide sparse guidance to employees who are forced to delete messages to meet these quotas. Consequently, business records are likely lost – especially if no storage space is allocated for retention of records that simply happen to reside in the email system. Others allow – or turn a blind eye to – the practice of employees exporting email messages out of the corporate email system so they can be tucked away in shared drives, thumb drives, or taken home for “safekeeping.” This practice results in an effective loss of management control over records found in the email system, and can greatly increase collection costs and increase spoliation risk in e-discovery.
The second camp “manages” email, but treats all email messages equally, regardless of their content. Some – seeking to minimize the cost and potential risk of email – automatically purge all email older than 30, 60, or 90 days. In the absence of a method to capture email messages containing record content, records are surely lost – violating laws that require retention of specified records, regardless of their form. Others – perhaps inspired by SEC Rules 17a-3 and 17a-4 and the email archiving software industry that those Rules singlehandedly created – capture a copy of all messages sent and received and keep them in a separate archive for a fixed period of time. This approach ignores the reality that such an archive will undoubtedly contain both trivial content and critical business records. From a compliance perspective, this may be just fine if you are a broker-dealer subject to these unique, email-specific Rules, but is less fine if you are, like most of the business world, subject to retention rules that do not exempt or treat email in special way, but rather require identification and retention of business records regardless of the form they take.
There are of course other approaches to email retention, one of which is outlined in your draft Bulletin. As I understand it, Capstone is a role-based method that uses the role of the email creator/recipient as a predictor of the content of that user’s account. In the past I have advocated such an approach to clients as a pragmatic method for improving otherwise nascent email records management practices.
NARA should certainly be commended for embracing such pragmatism, and in recognizing that complex user classification systems are often impractical and lightly adopted.
However, I would like to share two additional ideas that may be helpful as NARA finalizes its guidance.
First, while a knowledge worker’s role can certainly be a predictor of an email message’s content, our research has shown us the limits of this approach. We have assessed role-based approaches at client organizations by analyzing actual email accounts sampled from a range of user roles. We have then estimated the percentage of email content that would require retention under the client’s own retention rules. Across a range of users we have found as little as 5% and as much as 95% record content. There is certainly some correlation between the percentage of record content and the role of the user, but it is not always categorical. For example, some users are mostly information processors, and thus may have an extremely high percentage of email records in their inboxes.
Consider for example, a claims processor who receives a partially completed claims form attached to an email message, opens that form and completes it using information they possess, and than sends the completed form to an employee who represents the next link in the processing chain. This scenario is very common, even in large organizations. Assuming that these completed claim forms are records, and that they are not otherwise captured in a content management system, this user’s email account is quite important from a records management perspective.
However, a Capstone system based solely on seniority (i.e., “officials at or near the top of an agency,” as described in the Bulletin) may miss this important account and result in such records disappearing as “temporary” records. Conversely, senior officials may have a relatively low percentage of record content in their email system when they use other systems to communicate their decisions, document those decisions formally, or otherwise use other official or formal systems to complete their work. Capture and permanent retention of their entire account then, would result in retention of largely trivial content.
These issues can in part be addressed by careful examination of the way email is used by each agency and its users, as mentioned in the Bulletin.
Second, I wonder if NARA is turning away from a content-based approach to record identification and retention too soon – in fact, act just at the time in history when technology to enable semi-automated, content-based approaches is becoming widely available. Our clients are currently evaluating and implementing technology from OpenText and Recommind (there are other providers in the market as well) that marries human and machine intelligence to remove the classification burden from the user. Such systems are by no means trivial to implement and configure, but I believe that they point the way forward for email records management. The effectiveness of automated statistical methods for content classification has been demonstrated effectively in the intensely observed world of US civil litigation; a demonstration that I believe provides a foundation for it application to the records management problem.
Further, while the Capstone method would seem – as noted in your Memo – to foster compliance with the “OMB/NARA M-12-18 Managing Government Records Directive” requirement to “manage both permanent and temporary email records in an accessible electronic format,” I wonder to what extent it addresses the spirit of Section A3 of the Directive to “investigate and stimulate applied research in automated technology to reduce the burden of records management responsibilities?”
Once again, thank-you for the opportunity to provide feedback on this important Bulletin, and I am confident that NARA will continue to provide leadership as federal agencies continue this critical transition.