UPDATED 2/21/2012 9 a.m.

For nearly a decade, the state has automatically deleted emails on computers in the Hawaii governor’s office and all administration departments after just 60 days.

State officials say the state doesn’t have the storage space to keep them so they are killed unless intentionally archived.

That’s different than in other states reviewed by Civil Beat, where substantive emails are automatically archived as public records.

The question of email retention arose after Civil Beat learned that the Abercrombie administration says it received only 15 emails regarding the controversial appointment of Marc Alexander a year ago to be the state’s homeless coordinator.

The email retention policy appears to have been issued in July 2002, the last year of the Cayetano administration. It’s contained in a memorandum (which can be viewed at the end of this article) from then State Comptroller Glenn Okimoto to all department heads.

The policy, implemented that September, states the following:

This memorandum establishes an e-mail retention schedule of thirty days for the Executive branch in order to improve management of limited electronic storage resources of the state’s e-mail servers. You are hereby directed to implement a practice of retaining e-mail on department e-mail systems for no more than thirty days.

The memo advises that emails that are to be retained can be copied to “local drive, diskette, CD, or tape, or print to paper and file.”

A call from Civil Beat to Dean Seki, the current state comptroller, was not returned, so it is unclear whether the policy was later updated. DAGS is the department authorized to determine the disposition of state government records for the executive branch.

However, the emails are indeed deleted — but after two months, not 30 days.

“You are correct that the current administration inherited a legacy system,” said Jocelyn Collado, senior communications manager with the state’s Office of Information Management & Technology. “Additionally, it also inherited existing policies. Currently, the policy states that email messages are automatically deleted after 60 days unless they are marked for archiving.”

UPDATE

In an email received after this article was published, Collado said email is “just one of the many applications” that will be addressed under Chief Information Officer Sonny Bhagowalia’s plan to transform the administration’s antiquated information technology system.

“However, as the CIO and this office is currently in the midst of developing the strategic plan, we cannot answer the question regarding to cost and timeline for a new email system and the appropriate policies related to it,” she said.1

Lotus Notes

With the help of the Virgina-based nonprofit Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, we discovered a 2002 General Records Schedule published by DAGS that was updated in 2006.

It explains that email can be destroyed “when not administratively useful” and “may be purged on a posted schedule.”

“The retention period of information in an e-mail depends on its administrative, legal, fiscal, or historical/research value,” the schedule states. “Records with longer-term value may need to be filed and maintained in a record-keeping system.”

Again, because we did not hear back from DAGS, we don’t know if the schedule has been changed over the past six years.

A spokesman for the Attorney General, meanwhile, says print copies of undeleted emails are stored, but if a reporter wants to review them he will be billed for the man hours necessary to log the emails.

We do know that most computer users in the administration use an IBM software called Lotus Notes to handle email.

But since DAGS didn’t call back, Civil Beat could not find out what version of the software is used, or when it was installed or last upgraded. But Lotus Notes does not appear to be a popular program elsewhere.

A 2006 article in The Guardian begins with this observation:

Imagine a program used by 120 million people, of whom about 119m hate it. Sound unlikely? Yet that’s the perception one garners in trying to discover whether Lotus Notes, IBM’s “groupware” application, is — as readers of Technology blog suggested — the “world’s worst application”. The discussions (at http://tinyurl.com/e4a56 and http://tinyurl.com/d9gdk) suggest that those who have used it are united: to the average person, Notes displays all the user-friendliness of a cornered rat.

The article includes a link to a website called Lotus Notes Sucks, which appears to not have been updated in several years.

Other States Retain Emails

Mark Caramanica, Freedom of Information director for Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, told Civil Beat that the substance of emails usually determines whether they are to be retained.

For example, transitory emails — e.g., “Let’s meet at 2 p.m. for coffee” — need not be kept. Those regarding policy or administrative matters, however, have value and are typically deemed public record.

Caramanica said his group does not survey all 50 states on records retention policy, but he did provide information for North Carolina, Michigan and Indiana.

The policies vary, but each makes clear that all three states take email retention seriously. Examples:

Indiana: All e-mail conducted on state government computers is owned by the State of Indiana and is a public record. Anything, on any medium, that is created for any governmental purpose is subject to the terms of the public records law. Consequently, all e-mail messages sent or received for a government purpose are public records and are subject to record retention requirements. Electronic mail systems can transmit a wide variety of information; therefore, the length of time that an e-mail has to be retained varies according to the content of the e-mail. In short, the content and not the medium determines how long an e-mail has to be retained.

Michigan: It is essential that government agencies manage their electronic mail (e‐mail) appropriately. Like all other government records, e‐mail is subject to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and litigation. Agencies can be held liable if they keep their e‐mail messages too long, if their e‐mail messages are not properly destroyed, or if they are destroyed too soon. Under all of these circumstances, an agency can be seriously injured by its failure to follow legally prescribed retention requirements.

North Carolina: The Office of Archives and History assumes that every government agency or other political unit in North Carolina sends and receives e-mail or will shortly do so. E-mail (unless personal in nature) may contain valuable office administrative and management information. It may also document office operations, activities, and business functions. Like paper records—memoranda, correspondence, reports, and numerous other record types traditionally received through interoffice, U.S. mail or other avenues—e-mail can have administrative, legal, reference, and/or archival values.

Caramanica said he was “not necessarily surprised” that Hawaii has “a purge policy, given that there is lots of spam and lots of relatively transient emails. But it is not a free ride to delete what is in an inbox.

“It does surprise me that Hawaii has a standing directive that you dump everything, because you could be losing valuable things that should be archived,” he said.

Civil Beat checked with states comparable in size to Hawaii and closer to home to learn how they handle email storage.

Kim Schmanke, communications direct for Consolidated Technologies Services — a state agency formed in 2011 to administer Washington’s IT system — said her state has “strong Sunshine Laws and open records laws” that date to the 1970s. Schmanke said Washington is migrating to Microsoft Exchange Server 2010; emails are automatically archived after 30 days, but transitory emails may be detailed. The name of its archive program is Enterprise Vault.

Liani Reeves, general counsel for Oregon’s governor, said the administration uses Microsoft Office Professional Plus 2007. It uses a system called MyArchive, which “keeps every email sent or received”; there is no auto-delete. Emails from citizens come through a different system but are also kept. Reeves adds that spam and miscellaneous emails may be deleted.

Pat Shier, director of Enterprise Technology Services for the state of Alaska, said he could not comment in “broad brush” about the circumstances under which emails would be kept or deleted. But he said “a lot of thought goes into” the state’s records retention policy.

“We undertake a formal, thoughtful process to retain records,” he said, adding that there is sometimes “a disconnect” between custodians of retaining records and those seeking information about the records.

“If someone were to tell me that an important email is missing or not, I am not prepared to be outraged,” he said.

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