Critics force withdrawal of city’s email deletion policy

The mayor of the District of Columbia in the U.S., Adrian Fenty , has decided to withdraw a controversial e-mail policy that would have given messages stored on D.C. government e-mail servers a six-month life period.

The decision was made following criticisms from the public and city council members on the proposed policy, which was scheduled to go on a six-month pilot program beginning January 5 next year. The proposed e-mail retention policy will instead be open to discussion within a public forum. Timelines for those hearings have not been set, said the mayor’s spokeswoman Carrie Brooks.

Brooks said the e-mail policy would have automatically and permanently deleted all e-mail stored on DC government e-mail servers after approximately six months. Under the plan, weekly full backups of all e-mails would be transferred to tape. After eight weeks, the backup tapes would then be wiped clean and recycled back into use, according to documents from the Mayor’s office.

Some form of software would have been put in place to eliminate end-users’ ability to store any e-mail PST files, noted Brooks. PST files are personal folder files in Microsoft Outlook which can store data locally. If not properly managed, PST file growth can quickly add extra storage to a network and impede system performance.

Two exceptions did exist within the Mayor’s controversial e-mail retention policy: Litigation request holds by the DC Office of Risk Management, Office of Attorney General and independent counsel were allowed to preserve specified e-mails in connection with claims by or against the District for a maximum of three years.

In addition, the Mayor’s counsel had the power to waive the six-month e-mail retention guideline for any agency that “demonstrates a compelling business or legal need,” according to a memo from the Mayor’s office dated Oct. 3.

The memo stated that the DC Government e-mail system was built to offer communication services and emergency government functions “not to provide document retention.” In his memo, the Mayor said that large volumes of stored e-mails could harm the system’s ability to restore during a critical fail-over scenario. The e-mail system serves approximately 35,000 end-users.

Brooks said that the Mayor’s e-mails and other executive level e-mails would not have fallen under the e-mail policy guidelines, thereby preserving the electronic data indefinitely.

She said the Mayor’s e-mail retention policy plan was conceived after discussions with internal IT staff and other jurisdictions raised the issue of whether the practice of retaining all e-mails indefinitely was putting unnecessary strain on e-mail-related storage capacity, productivity and costs.

“Part of the issue is we don’t have any real e-mail retention policies in place. [Managing e-mail] takes a huge amount of time,” Brooks said. “From media to private citizens, our Technology Office has to go through our servers and do these searches and go through e-mail one-by-one to make sure no pertinent information needs to be redacted. It’s very time consuming.”

Brooks said the Mayor’s Office has been surprised from the immense backlash of the e-mail retention policy from the press, “watchdog groups” and council members who were ready to push through legislation to force the policy into an open public discussion before being enacted.

“It would seem [the e-mail retention policy] was a pretty drastic step,” Brooks said.

She said that any notion by critics that the DC Mayor’s office would regularly delete e-mails to somehow protect itself or “cover its tracks” was preposterous.

“It wasn’t some sort of nefarious plot. That certainly wasn’t the motivation. We thought it was something that was important to look at and to reduce costs for IT staff. If it ends up that something that addresses it in someway, I thin everyone is happy with the outcome,” Brooks said.

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