New Records Rules Require Agencies to Save Chats and Texts

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Previous records retention rules only explicitly applied to email communications. Now that has expanded to all pertinent electronic messages.

Federal agencies are under new requirements to save electronic messages to and from top agency officials, a move that goes beyond previous email-specific rules to now include chat apps and text messages.

New records mandates issued Wednesday by the National Archives and Records Administration clarify a decade-old rule for retaining electronic communications, expanding the requirement to include “email and other electronic messages” and detailing rules for automating retention for the top echelon of federal officials—known as the Capstone approach.

In 2013, NARA established the Capstone approach to electronic document management, allowing agencies to automate retention of emails sent and received by top agency officials depending on that official’s role. The move—established in NARA Bulletin 2013-02—allowed agencies to shift from having to print out and file all emails sent and received by officials to an automated system.

Capstone officials include a wide swath of agency leadership, including agency heads, principal assistants, undersecretaries, deputies, staff assistants, c-suite positions, directors of significant program and regional offices, advisory and oversight positions, and any office that is Senate-confirmed, among others.

At the time, the Capstone approach was designed specifically for email correspondences.

With the latest update to the General Records Schedules in Transmittal 33, the scope has been expanded to include all types of electronic messages, including, “electronic messages affiliated with email system chat or messaging functions, where the messages are managed independently from the email; messages from messaging services provided on mobile devices; and messages from messaging services on third‐party applications,” according to a Federal Register notice outlining the changes.

The new definitions can include any electronic message, including email-based chat, independent chat messengers and text messages.

These messages must now be permanently retained for “between 15 and 30 years, or after declassification review, whichever is later,” according to the latest disposition instructions.

Messages to and from non-Capstone employees—including non-email electronic communications—are under a “temporary” disposition and must be kept for at least seven years for agency officials and three years for non-supervisory support and administrative positions.

While the update and Federal Register notice offer some examples, NARA was clear that agencies should follow the intent of the policy, not the letter.

“As electronic messaging platforms and tools evolve, agencies will need to continually review their policy and implementation approaches,” according to a NARA bulletin issued Jan. 5. “Capturing electronic messages requires considerations of the technical infrastructure of the tools and may also require different policy approaches to ensure records management requirements are met.”

Rather than restrict the definition to a list of covered media, NARA offered a set of questions officials can ask themselves as they determine how to apply the new requirements:

  • Does [the electronic communication] contain evidence of an agency's policies, business or mission?
  • Is the information only available in the electronic message?
  • Does the agency use the tool to convey official agency information?
  • Is there a business need for the information?

“This includes electronic messages sent or received on personal devices that meet the definition of a record,” the bulletin states, adding that, “These messages must be forwarded or copied to an official account within 20 days.”