Most governments have developed strong systems for maintaining physical records, but electronic files create new challenges.

Written language has been a staple of global governance for centuries since details of property ownership were first pressed into wet clay and royal decrees were written on paper. Today, digital tools often are adopted because they improve a business function of government. Many states do so with little forethought about the records they create and how they should be preserved to comply with open-government laws considered a core trait of American democracy.

Some formats, such as email, put more of that burden on the individual user than paper records ever did. Memos, environmental impact statements and similar documents are official, often collective, records stored in a designated place and whose retention often is handled by someone with records training. Emails are used for multiple purposes and, without certain software tools, must be managed by each employee. Many states have struggled with how best to practically sort and store them.

Some strategies for managing email include: 

  • Keeping everything. Some states simply store all emails permanently or for several years, giving archivists time to identify messages of historical significance that should be kept permanently. For instance, North Carolina keeps every email sent by any public employee for at least 5 years.
  • Keeping emails of top officials. Some states take the “capstone approach” pioneered by the federal government, which focuses on preserving the emails of high-ranking officials who arguably are going to have sent the most important messages. The Library of Virginia, for instance, provides online access to 156,188 emails of vice presidential candidate Timothy Kaine, his staff and his cabinet leaders that were sent during his tenure as governor from 2006 to 2010.
  • Providing training and keeping some emails based on content. Utah, a state with a rural tax base and citizen legislature like Montana, has saved emails as part of its records retention and historical preservation practices since 1992. It provides records training twice a year to employees, including guidance on how to manage, store and delete emails based on content. The state also reaches out to top-level officials to transfer emails to the state archive.
  • Centralizing records management and automating some retention policies. Oregon was named by many IT, archival and records experts as one of the nation’s leaders. Michigan also uses the same software, and Wyoming and Colorado have been looking to implement it. In Oregon, state agencies are required to create public records retention policies before they adopt any new technologies. A software system manages digital files of all types, tracks changes to files so authenticity can be certain and, in some cases, automatically deletes files based on retention schedules or redundancy. The program automatically categorizes documents based on content as soon as they are created, making some instantly available to the public online, flagging others as needing legal review before they can be released and marking some as confidential. The system also reduces time the state spends fulfilling requests for public records because, regardless of format, they are organized and searchable.
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Projects reporter covering Montana, Montanans and their government.