Retention of Email and Other Electronic Records
This page provides sample policy language options that address the retention of email and other electronic records for local governments in Washington State.
It is part of MRSC's Electronic Records Policy Tool Kit, created in partnership with the Washington State Auditor's Center for Government Innovation.
While it is theoretically possible for an agency to retain electronic records permanently, there are several reasons why that is not a good policy over the long term. Electronic records have a life cycle - comparatively few need to be retained permanently under Local Government Records Retention Schedules. Failure to follow proper retention practices will result in an ever-increasing need for storage space and make searches for responsive electronic records more time-consuming.
Below are three approaches that can be taken to address electronic records retention.
Delete Emails After 90 Days Unless Placed in Specific Folders with Pre-Assigned Retention Periods
Bellevue requires its employees and officials to determine if an email meets the definition of a public record within 90 days. If so, it needs to be placed in an appropriate email folder that is pre-assigned a particular retention period. Emails that are not placed in folders are assumed to be either non-public records or records with no retention value and are purged from the city system. Note that this policy language applies to emails only.
Sample Policy Language - Adapted from Bellevue
1. All email messages sent or received that are related to the conduct of Agency business must be evaluated for record content. The content of each email message should be evaluated in light of the RCW 42.56.010(3) definition of “public record,” and against the following criteria:
- Was it created in the course of Agency business?
- Was it received for Agency action?
- Does it document Agency activities, decisions, or actions?
- Is it mandated by statutes or regulations?
- Does it support financial obligations or legal claims?
- Does it communicate Agency requirements?
2. Messages that meet the definition of a public record must be managed according to their approved retention period in their native format.
3. All email messages sent or received from a city email address will be retained for 90 days by the Agency’s email archiving software.
Employees have 90 days from the date a message was created or received to determine if an email meets the definition of a public record (see below). All emails that are public records must be retained in their native format for their approved records retention period. Retention periods are based on functional use of the information contained in each message.
4. Messages placed in Email Storage folders will be retained for the length of the retention period as approved by the Washington State Local Records Committee Records Retention Schedule.
5. On the first Sunday of every month all e-mail messages remaining in the Inbox, Sent Items, and Deleted Items folders that are more than 90 days old are purged from the Agency’s email storage. This process will also purge saved emails that have met their required retention period.
6. In order to comply with records management requirements and the Washington State Public Records Act (RCW 42.56), email messages that meet the definition of a public record must be stored within technology systems supported by the Agency. The Agency’s email archiving solution is considered the official system of record for Agency email messages.
7. Records Management staff will coordinate the transfer of email messages of elected officials, department directors, and communications related to official Boards and Commissions to the Washington State Archives per WAC 434-662-150 before they are permanently deleted.
Save Records for Seven Years Unless Deleted or Placed in Folders with Longer Retention
Olympia has created archiving folders which are used by all staff, including a standard (minimum) seven-year retention folder, folders with longer retention period, and one folder with a permanent retention period. Emails that are deleted are placed in a 90-day journaling account where they can still be retrieved within 90 days; after 90 days, they are purged. Emails on which no action is taken are automatically transferred to the seven-year archiving folder. Note that electronic records are addressed generally in subsections (a), (b) and (c)(1) and (2); emails are addressed in subsection (c)(3).
- Olympia Public Records Policy - See Policy 19, Section 4.4.
Sample Policy Language - Adapted from Olympia
Electronic Records Retention
a. Electronic records must be retained in electronic format and remain useable, searchable, retrievable, and authentic for the applicable retention period. Printing and retaining a hard copy is not a substitute for the electronic version. Examples of electronic records include webpages and databases.
b. Electronic records must be retained and disposed of based on content rather than format. The same retention schedule applies to paper and electronic records.
c. In making decisions about how long to retain electronic records, employees should first check the retention schedule to ensure compliance and verify that the records are not subject to a legal hold. Many electronic records can be disposed of at the discretion of the employee under the following guidance:
- If the electronic record is the primary or only copy of an official document, it must be retained for the time-period specified by the retention schedule. Once the required retention has been met, the record should be deleted and documented on a records destruction certificate. Departments should contact [insert appropriate title or department, such as the “Information Technology Department” or the “IT Manager”] for direction on electronic records designated as “archival.” Examples of official records include policies and procedures, executive level correspondence, and final reports.
- If the electronic record is transitory in nature with no administrative, legal, fiscal, or archival value, then the record can be deleted at the discretion of the user. Examples include secondary copies of memos, general office notices, general information, working copies, transmittal memos, meeting announcements, invitations to retirement parties, drafts.
- E-mail records are subject to the same retention schedule as paper records. Many email records are transitory in nature and may be deleted when they are no longer needed. Emails (both sent and received) that require retention must be managed accordingly. The Agency may use programs to aid in the management, retention, and disposition of email, including deletion of messages after specific retention periods based on record series. Employees are expected to make use of these programs to ensure that proper retention is applied and that emails that do not need to be retained are deleted appropriately.
- Some examples of email subject to retention include policy and procedure directives; correspondence or memoranda related to official business; documentation of actions, decisions, operations, and responsibilities, documentation of legal or audit issues; documents that initiate, authorize, or complete a business transaction; final reports or recommendations.
- Most email consists of transitory messages and attachments that may be deleted when no longer needed. An email that has no administrative, legal, fiscal, or archival retention requirements may be deleted as soon as it has served its purpose. Some examples of email not subject to retention include personal messages and announcements not related to official business; information only or duplicate copies; copies of publications; miscellaneous notices or memoranda of a general and non-continuing nature (meeting notices, reservations, confirmations); preliminary drafts of notes, letters, reports, worksheets which do not represent significant steps in the preparation of record documents; requests for routine information or forms.
- Use of personal email accounts (such as Hotmail or Gmail) for conducting Agency business is prohibited. In the event email related to the conduct of Agency business is received at a personal email address, it should be immediately forwarded as an attachment to the Agency email system.
Categorize Employees into Separate Groups and Retention Period Assigned to Each Group
Mercer Island requires that substantive city business be done by city email (as opposed to personal email or other forms of electronic communications) and requires employees to manage their email in accordance with retention requirements. It provides employee training and sets forth retention guidance in its policy.
Note that this policy option creates three separate groups of employees and officials and assigns an email retention period for each group. This approach does not directly incorporate the Washington State Local Records Committee Records Retention Schedule and may result in longer retention periods than those set forth in the State Schedules. It simplifies the retention process by assigning a retention period to agency positions instead of the subject of an email at the expense of potentially longer record retention.
Sample Policy Language - Adapted from Mercer Island
Authorized Use of Electronic Messaging and Mail for Agency Business
Employees shall ONLY conduct substantive Agency business via Agency email. The use of personal email accounts (such as Hotmail or Gmail) for conducting ANY Agency business is prohibited.
Employees shall NOT use any other means of electronic messaging to conduct substantive Agency business.
Electronic messages may only be used for communications of transitory records as defined in the Washington State Local Government Common Records Retention Schedule (CORE Schedule). For example, a text message to a co-worker stating: “I’m running late” is a transitory record.
Electronic messages shall be deleted as soon as possible. In most cases, a transitory text may be deleted once it is sent or it is read by the receiver. The Agency does not employ mechanisms, technology or otherwise, to capture electronic messages sent or received by Agency employees. It is the responsibility of each Agency employee to ensure adherence to Agency policies regarding such messages.
Emails will be retained based upon the following retention groups:
GROUP 1 - Permanent
- Retention Period – emails sent or received by members of this group shall be retained permanently. Emails will be stored on systems which the member or authorized Agency employee has direct and ongoing access.
- Group Membership – The members of this group shall include and be strictly limited to the following Agency employees:
- Elected Officials
- City Manager
- Deputy or Assistant City Managers
- City Attorneys
- Department Directors
- Public Infrastructure Engineers
- Public Infrastructure Managers
- Emergency Manager
GROUP 2 - Seven Years
- Retention Period – emails sent or received by members of this group shall be retained for a period of seven years based on the sent date of the message. Emails will be stored on systems which the member or authorized Agency employee has direct and ongoing access. All messages sent or received by members of this group that were sent more than seven years prior will be deleted from Agency systems.
- Group Membership – The members of this group shall include and be strictly limited to the following Agency employees unless the employee qualifies for the permanent retention group:
- City Clerks
- Deputy or Assistant Directors
- Finance Department Employees
- Human Resource Department Employees
- Police Department Employees
- Fire Department Employees
- Building Officials
- Building Inspectors
- Code Enforcement/Compliance Officials
- Facility Manager
GROUP 3 - Two Years
- Retention Period – Emails sent or received by members of this group shall be retained for a period of two years based on the sent date of the message. Emails will be stored on systems which the member or authorized Agency employee has direct and ongoing access. All messages sent or received by members of this group that were sent more than two years prior will be deleted from Agency systems.
- Group Membership – The members of this group shall include all Agency employees who are not a member of another retention group.
Upon adoption of this policy, all Agency employees will be required to attend training on this policy and acknowledge in writing that they are aware of this policy and procedures, have received the necessary training, understand their responsibilities and know how to comply with the policy.
All new Agency employees will be given training on this policy within one month of their hire date. At least annually, Department Directors will be responsible for reviewing this policy with all department employees and maintaining records of attendance.