Can you imagine being able to conduct government business in the State of Alabama without the use of email? In general, public officials are legally obligated to create and maintain records that adequately document agency activities. These government records — including email — facilitate the efficient conduct of government programs and services; ensure effective management of government information; and provide documentation of government business. Considering this, what rules and best practices apply to email when it comes to managing and retaining government records?
Let’s define government email. The state of Alabama issues a professional e-mail account for each new employee and public official. However, Alabama law stipulates that any document is a government record when it is created by a government employee in the course of conducting public business — not just those documents created with and/or stored on government property. If an employee is engaging in government activities with his or her personal email account, those emails are government records. This is one reason that the use of official government email accounts is encouraged when conducting public business.
How long must email be maintained by government agencies? It depends. Email itself is not a record type but a format. Because records retention relies on the information in a record and not on the format, agencies cannot apply one retention to all email messages.
Government email messages must be retained and disposed of according to the Records Disposition Authority (RDA) approved by the appropriate records commission for that agency. For example, if your agency’s RDA requires grant project files to be maintained “six years after submission of the final federal financial report,” then email associated with the grant project file would have that same six-year retention. Email messages are subject to the same retention requirements as the same type of records in another format or medium. Keep in mind that the retention of email is dependent upon the content of the email, not where the email account resides.
Email records are also subject to the same legal requirements regarding access as an agency’s other government records, as established by Alabama’s open records law. Because email created in the conduct of state or local business is public record and rarely subject to restrictions, written communications should be articulated clearly and professionally, leaving banter to the break room.