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The FOI Advocate is a compendium of ideas, edited story excerpts and other materials from a variety of Web sites, as well as original concepts and analysis. When the information comes directly from another source, it will be attributed and a link will be provided whenever possible. The blog relies on the accuracy and integrity of the original sources cited. We will correct errors and inaccuracies when we become aware of them.

Monday, January 14, 2008

An Interesting Look at E-Mail as a Public Record...

In Governing Magazine, featuring yours truly and a nice Missouri lead:

For several months last fall, the St. Louis media had a field day with Missouri Governor Matt Blunt's office for doing the equivalent of crumpling up important office correspondence and tossing it away. Employees weren't using a wastebasket, though. They were tossing out messages by clicking "delete" on their computers. Staff members insisted there was no written policy in their office on saving and deleting the e-mails. They said they routinely erased the

Most other state offices were quick to disassociate themselves from this approach. The attorney general, the secretary of state and the auditor all announced that, unlike the governor, they treated e-mails as public records and retained them accordingly. Finally, in November, Blunt put an end to the controversy by announcing his own stringent new policy. A "permanent" e-mail retention system would be created, and employees would no longer be able to make case-by-case decisions on what to save. The governor gave his Office of Administration the task of developing technical systems to permanently save every single state government e-mail. He didn't say how much that would cost or how much additional storage would be needed.

Missouri's is not the only government that has been stumbling over vague or non-existent e-mail policy. Millions of state and local employees in jurisdictions all over the country correspond by e-mail every day without giving much thought to what should happen to the product. They may come to regret that behavior. Not only are records, and history, being lost, but many government lawsuits now turn on what is buried in old e-mail messages. Government policy simply has not kept up with the evolving technology. "At the moment," according to Charles Davis, of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, "everyone is looking up and saying, 'Maybe we ought to be keeping this stuff.'" But few have come up with clear rules governing where and how to keep it.

Some elected leaders are still trying to hold the line against long-term storage, but generally they aren't succeeding. Last August, for example, Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian Fenty issued an executive order directing employees to purge most e-mails after six months. Three months later, after resistance from the city council, he withdrew the order. The council felt six months wasn't long enough to protect critical information and provide evidence against misconduct. "With the punch of a button," one council member said, "many important, vital public records would have been lost."

More here.

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