Managing Electronic Records
This page provides general guidance on how to manage the retention of electronic public records to help Washington local governments comply with records retention requirements and the Public Records Act (PRA), including some practice tips and do's and don'ts.
It is part of MRSC's series on the Public Records Act.
Electronic records can pose unique challenges for agencies related to records retention and the requirements of the PRA. Agency electronic records are held in various locations, accounts, and devices (both government-owned and personal), and managing the sheer volume of electronic records can be daunting.
Setting up an electronic records management system and paying close attention to retention requirements for electronic records is particularly important. To that end, agencies need to adopt electronic records management policies in order to effectively manage public records created or received over email, text, and social media.
MRSC, in partnership with the State Auditor’s Office Center for Government Innovation, has created as series of webpages providing sample policy language options and guidance for the various facets of electronic records retention, management, and disclosure, including email, text, and social media. See our Electronic Records Policy Tool Kit.
MRSC and the Center for Government Innovation have also collaborated to produce the printable practice tips and Do's and Don'ts listed below.
Electronic Records Retention Practice Tips
Electronic Records Retention Practice Tips. Use these practice tips to guide your agency's compliance with the PRA and records retention requirements for electronic records. Re-designed and revised with minor clarifications in March 2021.
Electronic Records Management by Type of Record
Rules governing electronic records can be complicated, so it can be helpful to have guidance on what is allowed, and what is not, regarding common types of records.
Electronic Records Retention Do’s and Don’ts: Use these Do’s and Don’ts to help guide your agency’s compliance with the PRA and records retention laws as these laws relate to different types of electronic records. Re-designed and revised with minor clarifications in March 2021.
Agency Email Accounts
Some agencies keep all email forever. This is not a recommended approach since most emails do not have permanent retention value under the Secretary of State’s Local Government Common Records Retention Schedule (CORE), and since retaining all emails forever can make production in response to a PRA request challenging due to the large number of emails that may be needed to be reviewed for responsiveness.
For some examples of effective approaches to email retention, see our page Retention of Email and Other Electronic Records.
Personal Email Accounts
In most circumstances, it makes the most sense for agencies to issue agency email addresses to staff and officials to transact agency business. Recognizing that there are some situations where this is not possible or practical, there are a few options:
- Create a private email account on Gmail or another commercial email service for the staff member or official to use in sending or receiving emails related to agency business. For example: Councilmember_LastName@gmail.com.
- Allow the staff or official to use their own personal email account. Under this scenario, the staff or official will need to closely follow the agency retention requirements and will need to comply with agency requests to search their personal account for records responsive to records requests. Alternatively, the staff member or official can forward their agency-related email from their personal account to an official agency email account for retention, in which case they can likely delete the original email received on their personal account as a secondary copy.
Practice Tip: When you forward agency-related emails sent and received on your personal email account, you may lose the metadata with a simple forward. Metadata associated with email is a public record and must be produced, if requested. See O’Neill v. City of Shoreline (2010). Shoreline developed tips for how to preserve metadata when an email is forwarded from a personal account to an agency account. Review these tips with your IT staff and agency attorney.
Managing Social Media Accounts
Many agencies use social media to reach constituents. If an agency uses social media, it needs to adopt a social media, policy. For examples of various policy approaches taken by local government agencies, see our page on Social Media Policies.
Agency Social Media Accounts
Some agencies post only secondary copies on their social media accounts and prohibit commenting in order to avoid public records and records retention issues. If the agency posts its primary copy of a record on its social media account and/or permits commenting by third parties, then the agency needs to implement tools to capture these public records.
One option is to invest in social media retention software like Smarsh or Archive Social; other options could include using the Facebook Archiving tool or taking a snapshot of public record posts and saving those in a designated file.
Personal Social Media Accounts
Like use of personal email accounts and cell phones, use of personal social media accounts for agency business poses a problem from a PRA perspective since the agency does not have control over the records.
If an agency staff member or official uses their own personal social media account to post about agency business within their official capacity or scope of employment, they will need to cooperate with the agency in the event of a records request. The staff member or official will also need to take steps to retain public records posted on their social media account by using the Facebook Archiving tool, taking a snapshot of posts and saving those in a designated file, or by using another records retention option.
Managing Text Messages
All local governments should develop a clear policy with regard to use of text messaging for agency business, as well as how text messages will be managed and retained to satisfy the requirements of the Public Records Act (PRA).
For examples of various policy approaches that other jurisdictions have taken in Washington State, see our page on Text Messaging Policies. MRSC also highly recommends reviewing the Washington State Archives Text Messaging Guidance Sheets before developing a policy, particularly the information regarding the retention and management of text message records.
- Electronic Records Policy Tool Kit – Series of webpages focused on providing sample policy language options and detailed guidance for the various facets of electronic records retention, management, and disclosure, including email, text, and social media
- PRA & Records Management Technology Guide – Downloadable guide offering key questions to consider before purchasing records management software, an overview of software options, suggested guidelines for evaluating and selecting software, and more
- Washington State Archives: Basics of Records Management – Advice and Resources – Helpful resources, including whether paper records can be destroyed after imaging/scanning and practices for records in electronic format