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Efficient or evasive? New email policies test MN government openness

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Email retention video
Cities and counties in Minnesota are increasingly setting tight limits on how long their employees must save emails. The city of St. Paul produced a video to educate workers on its new system.
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On Aug. 1, the city of St. Paul deleted about 40 percent of its email archive and took steps to ensure there were no backups.

The purge was part of a new system that automatically erased messages from employee inboxes after six months. In order to save the messages longer, workers would have to move them into other folders, where they would be safe for three years.

Angie Nalezny
Angie Nalezny, human resources director for the city of St. Paul.
Curtis Gilbert | MPR News

It was done to force the city's 4,000 employees to be organized, said Human Resources Director Angie Nalezny. "Our goal was to make sure that email was an efficiency tool," she said.

But that wasn't the only reason. Documents obtained by MPR News through a data practices request show city officials also wanted to lighten the burden posed by requests — like the one MPR News filed.

A draft of a presentation from March noted "the more email that is available, the bigger the job of searching for emails that respond to a specific request." That line was later removed, because according to one city employee, "the lawyers want to avoid the perception that the city is trying to minimize transparency."

There's always been tension between government and the organizations that want government to be completely transparent. The Minnesota Government Data Practices Act makes most government documents, from reports to budgets to the emails of public employees, available to anyone who requests them.

Media and watchdog groups say the ability to get those documents serves a crucial role in keeping government honest and transparent.

Government, though, is increasingly pushing back.

Rochester, Bloomington and Anoka County have a system like St. Paul's that automatically purges old emails. Hennepin County is considering one. Dakota County also wants to find a way to prune more than 9 million emails currently stored on its servers.

In St. Paul, Nalezny argues the city's new policy will allow for more transparency because, with less data to sort through, officials will be able to get information out to the public faster. "If I can't get it to you in a quick manner, that is not efficient." she said.

But how can the city turn over documents that have been purged?

"I want to get you what we have and what we've said we're going to save under our retention policies," she said.

St. Paul's official retention policy calls for "general correspondence" to be saved for three years. But to comply with that directive when it comes to email, individual employees have to take action to preserve it.

An intentionally corny video the city produced to educate workers on the new system told them in most cases they shouldn't bother.

The city's retention policy allows employees to immediately delete emails if they are "transitory ... incidental or non-vital correspondence."

But State Archivist Shawn Rounds, who helps preserve historically valuable government records from around the state, says that's a fairly limited category of messages.

"It's the ''Let's meet for lunch' sort of message that you don't need to worry about, or 'The elevators are out in the building today,'" Rounds said. "If you've got an email that's talking about policies, I would not consider that to be a transitory message. I would consider that to be a record."

Mike Kieffer is sales director at Intradyn, a Mendota Heights-based company that provides email archiving services to local governments all over the country. He doesn't buy the argument that St. Paul wants to get rid of messages to boost efficiency.

Mike Kieffer
Mike Kieffer, director of sales engineering for Intradyn, a Mendota Heights-based company that provides email archiving software to local governments around the country.
Curtis Gilbert | MPR News

He usually recommends clients save those messages for anywhere from three to seven years.

"They can't use the excuse, 'Well it takes too long to search through these emails,' because there are tools out there that will allow them to do it very efficiently, and probably too efficiently," he said. "They're afraid of their employees saying something stupid or illegal in email, and the smoking gun being laying there."

The strategy of automatically deleting emails after a few months can actually backfire, said Intradyn's Chief Operating Officer Adnan Olia.

"When a company or an organization or a government has a policy that's short, what the employees will do is they will create other files or print it out so they can go back to those emails," Olia said. "So basically they're not reducing their risk. They're actually increasing their risk unknowingly."

Documents show that's exactly what St. Paul city employees were doing as the August first deadline approached.

Workers circulated step-by-step instructions explaining how to download an entire inbox worth of emails onto a desktop computer. City leaders scrambled to prevent workers from doing it.

Public Works Director Kathy Lantry told a subordinate it was "unacceptable" to save old emails en masse.

Nalezny, the Human Resources director, said preserving all that data "defeats the purpose" of the new system.

Dakota County tried in 2004 to reduce emails in a way similar to what St. Paul's doing no. But Deputy County Manager Matt Smith says the policy was shelved because of technical difficulties and complaints from employees, who liked being able to refer back to their old messages.

"I am sort of an offender in that way, too," he admitted. "I know that I don't follow best practices, because I have lots of email. And I think that's one of the things that we've realized that people are using email as their own complete document management system."