Federal Records Management

Records Management Guidance for Federal Employees

All federal employees create and manage records as an integral part of their responsibilities to perform their agency mission. Federal records have value by protecting the rights and interests of the public, holding officials accountable for their actions, and documenting our nation's history. Also, good records management helps your agency operate more effectively and efficiently. The federal records you create belong to your agency.

What are federal records?

The statutory definition of federal records is: 

 All recorded information, regardless of form or characteristics, made or received by a Federal agency under Federal law or in connection with the transaction of public business and preserved or appropriate for preservation by that agency or its  legitimate successor as evidence of the organization, functions, policies, decisions, procedures, operations, or other activities of the United States Government or because of the informational value of data in them.

Many factors contribute to the determination that “recorded information” qualifies as a federal record. If the answer to any of the following questions is "yes," the item is a federal record.

  • Did the agency require the creation or submission of the information?
  • Do regulations or laws require the creation and maintenance of the information?
  • Was the information used to conduct agency business or accomplish its mission?
  • Does the item contain unique information explaining agency policies and decisions?
  • Was the information distributed to other persons, offices, or agencies for approval or clearance?
  • Is the information covered by an item in an agency records schedule or general records schedule?

Federal records exist in many formats. Almost anything you use to conduct your agency’s mission can be a federal record. Federal records are not just paper documents. The tools and solutions used by federal employees to collaborate, communicate, share files, and store information can contain federal records. As technology evolves, so does the nature of what can be a federal record.

How do federal employees create and manage federal records?

As a federal employee, you need to consider how to create adequate and proper documentation of your work. For example, if you attend meetings where decisions are made, issues are resolved, or policy is established, you should ensure records are created that document those discussions. Additionally, documenting the actions taken as part of your work is important to protect the interests of federal employees, the government, and the public (44 U.S.C. 3101).

Your work unit should have a set of instructions on how to manage the records that you and your organization create. For example, you may have file plans indicating how records and information should be organized and stored electronically in agency systems, and how long files must be kept. You may have workflows where you are required to save specific emails to case files as part of a business process.

How long should federal employees keep federal records? 

Records schedules determine how long federal records are kept. There are two types of records schedules: General Records Schedules (GRS) for records common to most agencies, and agency records schedules for records specific to an agency. Records schedules are approved by NARA and are mandatory. Some records schedules authorize the destruction of federal records soon after creation, while other records schedules require agencies to eventually send the federal records to NARA to become part of the U.S. National Archives. Most records fall somewhere in the middle, being kept for a certain number of years by your agency.

Federal employees must follow the disposition instructions in records schedules along with agency policies and practices for records destruction. If you have questions about creating, managing, or destroying federal records, you should contact your agency records officer. NARA maintains a list of designated agency records officers on our website. 

What records management training is available for federal employees?

You must complete the records management training provided by your agency, which includes the mandatory annual refresher training required by NARA. Ideally, when you start your federal service, you will receive an entrance briefing on your agency’s records management program, policies, and practices. NARA also provides online records management training that may help you understand what questions to ask about records management at your agency.

How do federal employees manage electronic messages?

The Federal Records Act states that “the term ‘electronic messages’ means electronic mail and other electronic messaging systems that are used for purposes of communicating between individuals.” Electronic messages include email, social media messages, chat/instant messages, texts, and voice messages.

Federal employees should use agency accounts for electronic messages – including texts, chats, and emails – when conducting agency business. Personal and non-official accounts should only be used to conduct agency business in exceptional circumstances. If you create or receive a federal record in a personal or nonofficial email or e-messaging account, the law states (44 U.S.C. 2911) that you must:


  1. Copy an official electronic messaging account of the officer or employee in the original creation or transmission of the record; or
  2. Forward a complete copy of the record to an official electronic messaging account of the officer or employee not later than 20 days after the original creation or transmission of the record.

Most likely, your agency is using the Capstone approach to manage emails and messages “behind the scenes.” For most agencies, all email is kept for at least 7 years for non-Capstone officials. Capstone officials' emails are permanent and will eventually be transferred to NARA as part of our nation’s history. 

NARA provides additional resources on the management of email and electronic messages on our website.

How do federal employees handle social media accounts? 

Federal employees that use social media accounts in the conduct of agency business are creating federal records. Social media applications may also include messaging features that are subject to the rules on electronic messaging mentioned above. 

In general, agency business should be conducted using agency-owned and managed social media accounts, as with any type of agency business. NARA provides high level guidance to agencies on how to manage their social media records guidance in NARA Bulletin 2014-02

If your agency does not have an automated social media capture tool in place or the social media platform you are using does not support automated records management, you should work with your Agency Records Officer to determine what manual steps may be necessary for the capture and management of federal records. 

How do federal employees manage personal files?

Personal files are documentary materials belonging to an individual that are not used to conduct agency business. Personal files are excluded from the definition of federal records and are not owned by the government (36 CFR 1220.18). In other words, these are your records, not federal records.

Traditionally, personal files have included:

  • Business or professional files created before entering government service
  • Reference files, for example, professional association journals or library materials
  • Copies of documents from your official personnel file that you maintain for your personal use
  • Personal correspondence, emails, and other materials not related to agency business
  • Personal contacts

Employees should distinguish their personal files from federal records. If personal files and federal records are not managed separately, then personal materials may end up in federal records management systems or fall under federal information and records management policies and procedures. For example, personal emails may be captured under the agency’s Capstone approach or personal correspondence may become part of a FOIA case. This distinction is important because federal records must not be removed from agency custody. 

Employees should consult the agency records management staff, legal counsel, or other designated officials to help determine whether files are personal or federal records.

How do employees manage records as they prepare to leave their position?

Federal employees cannot take records with them when they leave. However, they may be able to take some copies of federal records as well as their personal materials. Any copies of federal records must not contain classified or sensitive information, but be completely releasable to the public. 

When a federal employee leaves, the records they created must be retained according to the disposition instructions in records schedules. Federal employees should be sure federal records and information are organized and available to their work unit so that records management policies and practices can continue to be carried out. 

Most federal agencies have records management exit briefings to help staff determine what actions to take with their records or personal files when preparing to leave. Federal employees should reach out to their agency records officer if they have any questions or concerns about records management and their departure.


Updated: June 10, 2024