The dirty truth about missing emails

While many agencies have been developing and adopting strategies to manage their records electronically, the IRS scandal has revealed a gaping chasm between policy and implementation.

file folders on a background with binary code

When President Barack Obama signed a memorandum on the management of government records in November 2011, some touted it as the first significant action on the topic since Harry Truman signed the Federal Property and Administrative Services Act in 1949 and the Federal Records Act in 1950.

More than six decades and 7 billion network devices later, the problem of how and what to archive among the endless piles of federal records -- 4.75 billion pages in the last 10 years, according to the National Archives and Records Administration -- has gained both operational and political currency.

The often-arcane conversation about record storage was pushed into the spotlight recently when the Internal Revenue Service was unable to produce about two years of emails from former IRS Commissioner Lois Lerner and six other employees because of what the agency called a "hardware crash."

How on earth, critics asked, could emails be lost because of hardware malfunctions, particularly in an administration that is the first in decades to spend any serious time thinking about records management?

That particular answer is yet to be revealed. But while many agencies have been developing and adopting strategies to manage their records electronically, the events at the IRS demonstrate -- at best -- a startling disconnect between policy and implementation.

Certainly, this is not the first time government emails have mysteriously vanished. In 2007, the Bush's administration claimed to have lost emails having to do with the dismissal of U.S. attorneys. A similar email disappearance happened in the Clinton administration in 2000.

Those instances, however, predated the institution of federal policies intended to bring record management into the 21st century. The presidential memorandum of 2011 and a directive by the Office of Management and Budget and National Archives in 2012 created strict guidelines and deadlines for agencies to work toward managing their records electronically.

According to the memorandum, agencies must manage all email records in an electronic format – no more printing and storing -- by the end of 2016. By the end of 2019, all permanent electronic records held by federal agencies must be managed electronically to the fullest extent possible.

As things stand now, many agencies have a limited capacity for electronic email storage. When an employee reaches that capacity, she has to go through and determine what qualifies as a record that must be saved.

Sounds simple enough, albeit somewhat time-consuming.

But, according to April Chen, project manager at record-storage firm Iron Mountain Government Services, there are as many as 500 retention categories laid out as part of the general records schedule.

As Meg Phillips, external affairs liaison at NARA, put it at a Government IT Forum in Washington, D.C., in late 2013, "the scale of electronic records being created requires more individual decisions than users can be reasonably expected to process in a manual way."

At the Department of the Interior, eRecords manager John Montel said, the Office of Records Management is working with NARA on automating the process with an auto-classification system that can index and collate records using algorithms, and automatically filter and file them

Interior is the first Cabinet-level agency to put its records management system in the cloud. Its Email, Enterprise Records and Document Management System, eERDMS, is designed to manage records, documents, forms and other data that supports the department's programs; relevant agency data is stored in OpenText format in a cloud managed by the IQ Business Group.

The hardest part for many agencies, Montel said, is getting started and figuring out what records they actually have.

Keeping agencies honest

Members of Congress and the general public were clearly frustrated with the apparent lack of transparency demonstrated by the IRS.

"These are answers we don't yet have because -- surprise, surprise -- a few computers crashed," House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) said last month in the wake of the revelations. "Plot lines in Hollywood are more believable than what we are getting from this White House and the IRS."

Analysis by outside tech experts have only added to the frustration.

It is really hard to lose an email, said Steve Marsh, founder of Smarsh, a company that provides archiving platforms for organizations.

"It's surprising to me that the record keeping in government doesn't appear to be on par with the private sector," Marsh said. "In the broker/dealer community there are very restrictive regulations to preserve records so there's no way they can be lost."

Strict regulations and constant testing attempt to keep companies in the private sector honest in their record retention capabilities. "In the financial services world, the SEC examiners are testing companies' ability to produce records," Marsh said. "They will say, for example, 'We need all emails from John to Jane, from this date range and you have 48 hours to produce them.' They've been doing it that way for a decade."

In the public sector, Marsh said, he doesn't see that kind of testing. "Far too often we hear, 'oh we can't do it, it's too expensive.'"

If those emails were being archived by any cloud provider ... the IRS could essentially burn down and you would still have copies available.

However, for most agencies it's less expensive to do it the right way, considering all the back-end costs. Fulfilling an investigative records request can take thousands of person-hours and cost the organization more than what a simple records management system would cost, Marsh said.

In responding to congressional requests from last May, for example, the IRS said it has incurred nearly $10 million in direct costs.

Does the email provider make a difference?

In government, there is no one-size-fits-all for agencies email needs. Some have moved to Gmail, like the General Services Administration and Interior Department, but a majority of agencies still use Outlook or other, older systems.

Opinions differ on whether the email system makes a difference in an agency's record-retention program.

Chen said it's less about the email service and more about the foundation of the agencies' record-storage program and ability to adapt to changing technologies.

According to Marsh, however, using Gmail would present agencies with an advantage for storing their emails.

"You probably would not be hearing about a failed hard drive," Marsh said. "You would have an entire history of an employee's email, even without an archive -- a failed hard drive wouldn't cause that to be lost."

But not always. Interior uses Gmail for department-wide email, but doesn't use Gmail's archiving system. Instead it uses the OpenText solution in the cloud to manage its more than 2 million emails per day.

Chicken or the egg?

According to a 2012 survey by Iron Mountain, 93 percent of respondents said their agency was significantly prioritizing records management.

A survey the same year by NARA showed that more than two-thirds of agencies surveyed reported taking steps to improve the integrity and usability of electronic records, but fewer were requiring senior career officials and political appointees to receive training on managing records under their direct control.

While the technology to improve federal record storage and retention – and to meet the deadlines imposed by the 2011 memorandum -- is out there, agencies still have a lot of work to do in adopting it.

According to the Interior Department's Montel, the key is having enough flexibility to anticipate quickly evolving technology.

"Policy has to meet the demands of today, but also be thinking five years down the road," Montel said. "You have to know where the industry is going and be open and forward thinking enough."

For agencies looking at different technologies, Marsh said a cloud-based record retention system may offer a good opportunity for agencies.

"If those emails were being archived by any cloud provider you would have multiple copies of those emails," Marsh said. "The IRS could essentially burn down and you would still have copies available through a search tool like Google, available almost instantaneously."

In the Iron Mountain survey, only 9 percent of respondents felt they were "very strong" when it came to using cloud computing applications and other new technologies to manage data.

"It's so much more than filing paper," Chen said. "It requires records management, IT and legal expertise all aligned around the same strategy to build that model of information governance."