Burn Bag: If an email server goes down and the Embassy doesn’t make a sound …

Via Burn Bag:

“It appears that a certain U.S. diplomatic post in sub-Saharan Africa has been without official email communications for a whole week.  How can this happen in a time of frequent security concerns and emergency evacuations from the region?

No one in Washington seems to know or care. AF bureau appears clueless, not even working to help out. So if an email server goes down and the Embassy doesn’t make a sound, does that outpost even exist anymore?”

computerslam

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OIG: Only 41,749 State Dept Record Emails Preserved Out Of Over a Billion Emails Sent

Posted: 4:29 pm EDT
Updated: March 12, 9:29 pm PST
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State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf told CNN that since the inspector general is independent from the department “they will have to speak to the timing and details of releasing this report, which they control.”

So we asked the IG and we’re told that “the timing of the release of this report (ISP-I-15-15) was purely coincidental to the recent email issue.”

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State/OIG did a review (pdf) of the Department’s State Messaging and Archive Retrieval Toolset (SMART) and Record Email in Washington, DC, between January 24 and March 15, 2014. According to the OIG, in 2013, Department employees created 41,749 record emails. These statistics are similar to numbers from 2011, when Department employees created 61,156 record emails out of more than a billion emails sent. Department officials have noted that many emails that qualify as records are not being saved as record emails.

Below are the highlights of the OIG review:

  • A 2009 upgrade in the Department of State’s system facilitated the preservation of emails as official records. However, Department of State employees have not received adequate training or guidance on their responsibilities for using those systems to preserve “record emails.” In 2011, employees created 61,156 record emails out of more than a billion emails sent. Employees created 41,749 record emails in 2013.
  • Record email usage varies widely across bureaus and missions. The Bureau of Administration needs to exercise central oversight of the use of the record email function.
  • Some employees do not create record emails because they do not want to make the email available in searches or fear that this availability would inhibit debate about pending decisions.
  • System designers in the Bureau of Information Resource Management need more understanding and knowledge of the needs of their customers to make the system more useful. A new procedure for monitoring the needs of customers would facilitate making those adjustments.

Additional details from the OIG report:

The need for official records

The Department of State (Department) and its employees need official records for many purposes: reference in conducting ongoing operations; orientation of successors; defending the U.S. Government’s position in disputes or misunderstandings; holding individuals accountable; recording policies, practices, and accomplishments; responding to congressional and other enquiries; and documenting U.S. diplomatic history. Record preservation is particularly important in the Department because Foreign Service officers rotate into new positions every 2 or 3 years. Federal law requires departments, agencies, and their employees to create records of their more significant actions and to preserve records according to Governmentwide standards.

Who has responsibility for the preservation of official records?

Every employee in the Department has the responsibility of preserving emails that should be retained as official records.3 The Office of Information Programs and Services in the Bureau of Administration’s Office of Global Information Services (A/GIS/IPS) is responsible for the Department’s records management program, including providing guidance on the preservation of records for the Department and ensuring compliance. IRM administers the enterprise email system, including SMART, and therefore provides the technical infrastructure for sending and receiving emails and preserving some as record email.

What constitute official records? 

If an employee puts down on paper or in electronic form information about “the organization, functions, policies, decisions, procedures, operations, or other activities of the Government,” the information may be appropriate for preservation and therefore a record according to law, whether or not the author recognizes this fact. Whether the written information creates a record is a matter of content, not form. Federal statutes, regulations, presidential executive orders, the Foreign Affairs Manual (FAM), Department notices, cables, and the SMART Messaging Guidebook contain the criteria for creating and maintaining official records and associated employee responsibilities.

Which email messages should be saved as records?

According to Department guidance referenced above, email messages should be saved as records if they document the formulation and execution of basic policies and actions or important meetings; if they facilitate action by agency officials and their successors in office; if they help Department officials answer congressional questions; or if they protect the financial, legal, and other rights of the government or persons the government’s actions directly affect. Guidance also provides a series of questions prompting employees to consider whether the information should be shared, whether the successor would find the email helpful, whether it is an email that would ordinarily be saved in the employee’s own records, whether it contains historically important information, whether it preserves the employee’s position on an issue, or whether it documents important actions that affect financial or legal rights of the government or the public.

 

The OIG report notes that it has previously examined the Department’s records management, including electronic records management, in its 2012 inspection of A/GIS/IPS. OIG found that A/GIS/IPS was not meeting statutory and regulatory records management requirements because, although the office developed policy and issued guidance on records management, it did not ensure proper implementation, monitor performance, or enforce compliance. OIG also noted that, although SMART users can save emails as records using the record email function, they save only a fraction of the numbers sent. OIG recommended that the Bureau of Administration implement a plan to increase the number of record emails saved in SMART.

That was in 2012.

The OIG team also found that “several major conditions impede the use of record emails: an absence of centralized oversight; a lack of understanding and knowledge of record-keeping requirements; a reluctance to use record email because of possible consequences; a lack of understanding of SMART features; and impediments in the software that prevent easy use.”

To show how misunderstood is the requirement to save record emails, see the following chart. The U.S. Embassy in Hanoi had 993 record emails compared to US Embassy Islamabad that only had 121 record emails preserved. The US Consulate General in Guangzhou had 2 record emails while  USCG Ho Chi Minh City had 539. It looks like the US Embassy in Singapore with 1,047 record emails had the highest record emails preserved in 2013. The frontline posts like Baghdad had 303, Kabul had 61, Sana’a had 142 and Tripoli had 10 record emails in 2013. The only explanation here is that the folks in Singapore had a better understanding of record email requirements than the folks in our frontline posts. Given that the turn-over of personnel at these frontline posts is more frequent, this can have consequential outcome not just in the public’s right to know but in continuity of operations.

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Again, via the OIG:

Many inspections of embassies and bureaus have found that the use of SMART and the record email function are poorly understood. This lack of understanding is one of the principal causes of the failure of U.S. embassies to use record email more often. The inspections show that many employees do not know what types of emails should be saved as record emails. The employees typically need more and clearer guidance and more training. OIG has made formal and informal recommendations to increase the use of record email, to write and distribute formal embassy or bureau guidance on record email, and to arrange for training.

The A/GIS/IPS office is under the Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Administration, an office that reports to the Under Secretary for Management (M). The Bureau of Information Resource Management (IRM) also reports to M.

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