Before we talk about the challenges to using e-mail, match the items in this short quiz:
Some of the benefits of e-mail, including its ease and efficiency of use, also create challenges in managing e-mail as a source of public records. These challenges include:
Because e-mail is so easy to send, can be sent to multiple people at once, and can be received in almost real-time, it is often used to communicate brief updates, questions, or comments. For these reasons, e-mail can frequently be treated informally or used for personal communication. If an e-mail message contains personal information, it still has to be managed as a public record. Personal correspondence using government e-mail should be kept to a minimum. If you use your government e-mail for personal correspondence it is important that only personal communication be in a personal e-mail and business items are only in a business e-mail. By keeping business and personal e-mails completely separate, you can more easily organize and manage your e-mail.
As noted above, proliferation of e-mail can lead to a disorganized inbox. To keep your e-mail orderly, it is important to actively manage your inbox and sent mail to help ensure that you can find pertinent information at a later time. It is recommended that you create a folder system to label and organize your e-mail. If you organize your e-mail efficiently, then it will better serve you and your agency will be better prepared if it has to respond to a public records request or e-discovery. You may organize your emails in whatever way is best tailored to your work habits and environment. Ideally, messages in your inbox and sent box should be organized into folders within 24 hours of sending or receiving. Note: To assist you in keeping your folders organized, you can use the "Rules and Alert" function in Microsoft Outlook™. The rule function is an action that Microsoft Outlook™ takes automatically on an arriving or sent message that meets the conditions you have preset. For example, you can create a rule for messages from a specific sender, such as John Rogers, with the word "budget" in the Subject line, to be flagged for follow-up and moved to a folder called John's Budget. To create a rule in Microsoft Outlook™ go to Tools and then Rules and Alerts.
Once you send an e-mail message, you no longer have control over who might see that message or how it will be used. Even if you properly manage that public record according to your retention schedule, you cannot be certain that the recipient will do the same. Never send an e-mail message that you want treated confidentially, because you cannot ensure that it will be kept confidential.
Say, for example, you send an e-mail to a colleague with a comment about another co-worker. You delete that e-mail from your sent box since it is not work-related. However, perhaps your colleague replies to your personal e-mail with information about a project you two are working on. Not only do you now have a public record that includes personal correspondence sitting in your inbox, your colleague has your original e-mail in her inbox, as well as a message that is a public record in her sent box.
Half of all e-mail messages handled by e-mail systems, is spam. The best way to reduce spam is to avoid using your e-mail address to register or sign up for accounts online; consider having an e-mail account used only for registration and other online activities. Also, be sure to report spam to your IT department. If your agency uses NCMail, you can report spam by copying the entire contents of the e-mail into a new e-mail message and sending it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
E-mail is also vulnerable to various security threats like phishing, viruses, and alterations to a message's content by the sender or recipient. Remember: don't use e-mail to send confidential information, including passwords, social security numbers, or trade secrets.