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11 Rules for Using Government Email

On Monday, the New York Times reported that Hillary Clinton may have violated federal records laws when she used her personal email to conduct all of her official State Department business during her four years as Secretary of State.

Federal law states that certain emails written or received by federal employees become government records and therefore must be retained. In this instance, the Clinton camp argues that the secretary was in compliance with the law because she handed over 55,000 pages of emails in response to a request from the State Department.

Email retention policy isn’t straightforward in the least. Here’s what you need to know:

  1. First and foremost, you should avoid using your personal email to conduct official business. Agencies will generally allow employees to use personal emails when there is an emergency situation and official email accounts are not available. In that case, any emails dealing with official business must be kept in accordance with Federal Records law.
  2. There are three main types of emails, as far as Federal Records law is concerned: transitory, short-term, and long-term. Most emails are considered “transitory” meaning they will be kept for fewer than 90 days (basically, until they are no longer useful). Transitory emails include: information requests that don’t require policy decisions or administrative action; memoranda that do not involve official actions (like office closings), reminders or to-do lists, information about routine activities that contain no substantive information (meeting reminders, visit or training scheduling), emails that are personal in nature and involve no official business, and reference materials that do not warrant long-term preservation. Short-term emails are kept for approximately 90 days to one year and contain minimal or no documentary value. These emails can be left on a shared drive or in an email folder until they are disposed after they are no longer useful. Short-term emails include general administrative emails, emails that do not require action, or emails that do not document specific agency functions. Long-term emails are those that will be kept for more than a year and must be transferred to the National Archive and Records Administration (NARA). These include: emails that document actions undertaken during an emergency situation or in response to a disaster; emails documenting important program or project decisions if there is no likelihood that the decisions about the project were documented elsewhere; records of programs or projects that require a decision or administrative action; emails relating to an individual’s affairs that do not contain information on agency actions or activities (including invitations to meetings, discussions about a person’s working schedule, memoranda used only as a reference, personal messages that do not have anything to do with the agency, etc.). These emails should be deleted as soon as they are no longer needed.
  3. When you receive an email, ask yourself if you should delete, save, or print based on whether it is transitory, short-term, or long-term. Transitory emails should be deleted once they are no longer needed. Short-term emails can be saved in a shared drive or in an email folder for less than a year. Any documents that need to be retained after that point should be printed out and filed based on NARA procedures. Once this email is printed, you can delete the electronic version.
  4. Your agency likely has its own specifications as to how emails should be preserved. If you have an email that meets the Federal Records standards, Microsoft Outlook might have a Convert to Archive button for you to use. From there, you can send the message to the archive. When sending to the archive, be sure to remove any non-business related personal messages contained within the email.
  5. When you dispose of emails that are considered Federal Records, you must do so in accordance with an approved records schedule. Your agency or the NARA General Records Schedule can provide guidelines specific to your records.
  6. If you are on a group email, for example if your team is discussing a project, one person should be assigned as responsible for filing the email as a Federal Record, if necessary.
  7. Emails that meet the Federal Record guidelines should contain as much information in the subject line as possible.
  8. Don’t mix personal and professional topics in the same email (you never want to have your embarrassing secrets released to the public under a FOIA request!). That said, you’re better off sending personal emails from your private email account. If you do use your government account to send a message that is personal in nature, it is important to make sure that what you are saying is not construed as an official position of your agency. If you believe their might be confusion, include a disclaimer like “The views expressed in this email are solely those of the sender and do not reflect the views of [your agency] or the U.S. government.”
  9. If you decide to turn a non Federal Record email into one (for example, if the conversation changes), you must notify the other individual or individuals on the email chain and apply appropriate markings
  10. When in doubt, error on the side of caution and retain your email, ask your supervisor, or contact the NARA directly.
  11. It is likely that your agency has some standards on top of what is typically required for Federal Records. This might include specific messages that must appear at the bottom of each email or how emails containing classified information should be handled.

In today’s world, as new technology is introduced to the workplace, these guidelines have a tendency to change. The Bureau of Administration has a Records Management website that can provide additional or the most up-to-date information.

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