The management of e-mail in UK Government – the comments of a civil servant

Getting off the train tonight I bumped into a civil servant acquaintance of mine. He has been working at a reasonably senior level for the past two decades and has been working on a reasonably important policy initiative for the past three years

He asked me what I was doing these days.

I told him I was still doing my records management consulting but I had also started a part time PhD

He asked me what I was doing my PhD research into.

I told him I was researching how the UK government was managing e-mail.

He started to laugh, Not a giggle, a proper belly laugh.

I asked why he was laughing

He told me that he didn’t think there were any proper government records since the break up of the paper record systems in the late 1990s. His Department used to use a massive electronic records management system, but ‘no-one could find anything in it and hardly anyone used it’.

The Department had ceased using that electronic records management system a year ago. They had intended to implement a new records systems based on SharePoint but it had been delayed so they have been making do with e-mail accounts and shared drives.

He said that the last time he had saved something into a central records system of any kind was five years ago.

All his correspondence was in e-mail. He has 11,000 e-mails in his account. His department used to routinely delete e-mails that were over 2 and a half years old but that practice was in abeyance since they abandoned their electronic records system.

I asked what he thought he would be able to hand over to his successor in the event that he left the department or transferred post. He answered ‘almost nothing’. He said that the final outputs of his work were available on his Department’s website, but the thought process of how he got there will be lost.

Then he corrected himself and said ‘actually it won’t be lost, it will exist on a server somewhere, it will just be completely unfindable’

Most UK government departments seem to delete the contents of an e-mail account some months or years after a civil servant leaves so I suspect it won’t sit on a server for terribly long if/when my acquaintance does leave the department.

The part time PhD I am embarking on is jointly supervised by the University of Loughborough and The National Archives.

3 thoughts on “The management of e-mail in UK Government – the comments of a civil servant

  1. This is interesting and a probably a challenge for a lot of organisations not just government. It never fails to surprise me the challenges we constantly face with the introduction of information and records management systems and how organisations default back to the familiarity of email and shared drives. I face similar challenges in my own organisation and I look forward to the outputs and results from your research.

  2. This in not a challenge to the UK but also in NZ Govt. we face the similar challenge. We do have a Global Document Management (GDM) system which is a SharePoint platform with archiving. We are a globally dispersed agency but still have the challenge of once stored in GDM, where is it, where did I save it, how do I control access to it? Getting everyone to use it is a challenge, we discourage file shares, but they are still used, we discourage saving in to our email system, but it is still done. We just have to persevere because the alternative is chaos. We are bound by the Archive Act so have legislative compliance to adhere to. I would be interested in the outcome of your study as it will be so relevant.

  3. Sounds like an interesting PhD subject – good luck with it! The above anecdote is interesting but might not be characteristic for the whole of the public sector/government. A previous employer is certainly making every effort to manage emails as records in an EDRMS. I hope that you will find some good practice examples during your research – personally, I manage emails daily 🙂

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