The headache of maintaining public records is intensifying for state and local governments as freedom of information requests from lawyers and other citizens become more demanding. Given that e-mails are often considered public records, archiving them for e-discovery is a priority for many state and local IT departments. Governments unsure of how to proceed ought to look to Washington state.

Since 2008, the Washington Department of Information Services (DIS) has been transferring messages stored in agency e-mail systems into a central data repository. It's a work in progress, as the state prepares to add more types of documents to the repository.

Managing a state's public documents in a single location can be complicated because each agency has different policies for how long they retain public records. On the other hand, having separate public records systems for each agency can make records requests confusing and overly bureaucratic for citizens. However, jurisdictions that would like to store and maintain public records can adopt Washington state's centralized, virtual vault that lets agencies maintain their own data retention rules. The state uses Symantec's Enterprise Vault products: Mailbox Archiving for Microsoft Exchange, and Journaling and Discovery Accelerator.

Hesitation to centralize anything in government is usually rooted in fear of pushback from entrenched officials, which Washington avoided by making participation voluntary and keeping retention rules with each agency. The state appears to have implemented a hybrid approach that its agencies clamor to join. State employees typically refer to this repository as "the vault."

The Vault Expands

The primary way Washington's virtual records vault will archive different types of records other than e-mail will be its ability to store any document in Microsoft SharePoint, a Web-based content management system used in most U.S. office environments. When end-users access a document on their H or S drive, or another network drive, SharePoint is usually the program facilitating that. Meeting requests for public documents, like Excel spreadsheets and Word documents, is cumbersome, according to Cammy Webster, assistant director for the Computer Services Division of the DIS. When such a request arrives, agency officials must chase down individual employees who then go rooting through all of their SharePoint drives for those documents.

"The disclosure office doesn't have the ability to go to one place and pull it," Webster said.

The new vault offers centralized searches and can narrow searches by time frame or document type.

DIS Communications Director Joanne Todd found that deployment of the vault served as an occasion to correct her own "bad" document storage habits. She kept all of her e-mails in her Microsoft Outlook mailbox, rather than saving older e-mails to outside folders. This frustrated IT employees who wanted to save mailbox space. The Symantec product arrived with its narrower and more accurate searches, and it motivated Todd to routinely clear out her mailbox.

Guts of the System

Digital storage may be getting cheaper, but most governments struggle to find physical space for extra server capacity. Washington's repository conserves space by compressing the data and by not storing multiple versions of one document. For example, if a manager e-mails a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation to 30 workers, the vault only stores one copy of that document.

To maintain the vault, the DIS hired two extra people, but expects to hire more as SharePoint documents enter the system.

Yours, Mine and Ours

A key to the success of Washington's public records vault is its flexibility. Each agency controls its own records and policies for the length of time those records are retained. The DIS simply programs the repository to keep records for however long a given agency's policy dictates.

"Every agency has a different set of retentions based on the type of record," said Jim Albert, deputy director of operations

Andy Opsahl  | 

Andy Opsahl is a former writer and features editor for Government Technology magazine.