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Email, The Number One Government Record Keeping Tool

Under the fine steerage of Miriam Lips (Professor of E-Government) the fine folks at Victoria University here in Wellington have released their Effective Electronic Records Management in 21st Century Government* research findings.
This research project investigated how public servants across the New Zealand government handle emails of significant organisational value. The project also identified specifications for effective electronic record management across New Zealand central government, and made recommendations to government agencies on how to improve email management practices that support compliance with the Public Records Act.

Whilst the findings aren't world shattering they do solidify what most of us are thinking. And, even if you're not working within a government agency they have ramifications - here's the summary (my emphasis)
Similar to available research on e-mail management (e.g. Ducheneaut & Bellotti, 2001; Seow et al., 2005) our research findings demonstrate that individuals employed at New Zealand central government departments use e-mail as a personal information management tool: personal methods and behaviours formed the basis of e-mail management processes in government agencies, rather than organisational guidelines and needs. Time constraints, e-mail overload, difficulties to identify and classify messages, poorly created messages, lack of convenience, lack of usability of available EDRMS systems, and the inability to find messages stored in central repositories, were all concerns raised by research participants. These concerns offer explanations as to why respondents continue to use their individual work e-mail accounts to collect, store, organise, and retrieve business e-mail messages, even if an EDRMS is available.

It appears that, across New Zealand central government departments, anticipated personal information need drives respondents’ email record-keeping behaviours. While the majority of respondents perceive e-mail as critical in their work, they display no behavioural consistency when managing e-mail messages. Moreover, respondents demonstrate a lack of clarity about their anticipated information needs in terms of managerial, legal and democratic requirements, their professional roles and their ability to predict future information usefulness. Consequently, these findings point at ‘soft system’ rather than ‘hard system’ problems, which will need to be addressed by a cultural change process if government agencies want to ensure effective organisational email record keeping.

While recordkeeping programmes, education programmes, and EDRMS systems are in place in most government departments, more than half of the respondents had not received information or training, and almost one third of respondents were unaware of an organisational policy relating to e-mail management. The substantial lack of individuals’ knowledge and understanding of official e-mail management requirements indicates further opportunities for government agencies to support more consistent e-mail management by providing regular, tailor-made staff training sessions.

Hmm, I dunno about that "opportunity" though.
I suspect most people's internal conversation around their InBox is: "Email is personal, it is "mine" it is something that I control ... if there is the need to "record" the emails then the system is just gonna have to do it in the background as I work and hey, it better not get in the way!!"

And that's why I love GMail and the most of the web-based email systems. They keep "everything"** and therefore there is no need for extra brain work on my part to think, "How can I record/archive/store this communication for later use". Oh, I know this at a personal level but Google now offer the enterprise wide mail archiving and retrieval and I'm sure the rest of the Saas/S+S players also do the same.

Oh, and it's "retrieval" that's key and that is something I found a little light within the report. There are a lot of excellent findings about how people use their InBoxes in the "here and now"and where emails are stored but not a lot about how people refer back to past emails. Do people, for instance, use the EDRMS if they feel they are likely to reply within a week - I suspect those emails are thought of as "current" and kept in the InBox.

Anyway, read the report yourself and then think how it reflects both your own behaviour AND your colleagues :-)

More articles related to this topic from this website:

* copyright: M. Lips, A. Rapson & T. Hooper (2008) E-Mail Records Management in 21st Century New Zealand Government, Research Report, Victoria University of Wellington, available at: of project report_final.pdf

** GMail = 7Gb+, Google Apps Enterprise = 25Gb ... not necessarily "for ever" but a lot


  1. I suspect that person-person email and keeping the info in 'private' email boxes is a symptom of the general desire to communicate the minimum amount about what is thought and being done. Exposing what is now in mail to a wider audience, regardless of entitlement to know, is seen as a threat or at least an invitation to get a lot more work.
    However, I do share your view that we should be communicating wider and better. Even with a GMAIL type setup that should be possible. In the enterprise google app world, is it possible to use the 'sponsored links' feature to bring up notifications of related interest. So if the email is about say "privacy" a google ad shows up inviting you to go to the departmental privacy knowledge base?


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