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Managing Voice Mail

Use of voice mail

Many State agencies and local governments use voice mail to enable callers to leave messages when individuals are not available. Although most, probably the great majority, of these messages have little value beyond identifying the caller and requesting a return call on some matter, some recorded messages have continuing retention value because they communicate important information, provide direction or guidance on significant issues, or authorize actions.

State agencies and local governments thus need to determine (a) which voice mail messages are “records” under legal definitions, (b) how long those messages should be retained to meet administrative, legal and other needs, and (c) what practical steps can be taken to retain such messages for necessary periods, particularly when voice mail systems are not intended to store messages beyond a short time.

Retention and disposition of voice mail

Voice mail messages may meet the legal definition of being “records” under Arts and Cultural Affairs Law (Section 57.05 for State agencies and Article 57-A for local governments). These laws establish that records of government activities are not limited to paper documents but can exist in any media, including audio, video and electronic formats, and that all records require disposition authorization from the State Archives.

For State agencies, the legal definition of "records" allows agencies to regard voice mail messages of transitory value as "non-records" because they are not needed or appropriate for preservation to document public business. Those messages can be immediately deleted after opening. The few messages providing substantive information or direction are "records.” Staff members should manage the disposition of those messages in conjunction with related records pertinent to the subject of the messages, based on the applicable agency retention schedule or State General Retention and Disposition Schedule series.

For local governments, all voice mail messages received in the course of public business meet the legal definition of "records" and therefore require disposition authorization. Those messages of transitory value can be immediately deleted after opening by using the "internal information record" item no. 18 from the General section of local government schedules CO-2, MU-1, ED-1 and MI-1. This item authorizes immediate destruction when the records are no longer needed. The disposition of those few voice mail messages containing important information should be based on the particular records series to which the messages relate.

Nevertheless, State agencies and local governments are still faced with the practical issue of how to maintain voice mail messages for needed retention purposes. Voice mail systems are not designed for recordkeeping and often cannot preserve messages indefinitely. Some systems automatically delete messages, whether opened or not, after a short time.

Alternatives for retaining voice mail messages

Here are several possible alternatives to consider when there is a need to retain certain messages for some period of time:

  1. Determine how long your voice mail system can retain messages
    It may be possible to retain some messages in the system for a sufficient period to meet retention needs. Even when systems automatically delete messages after a specific time, it may be possible for system administrators to retain selected messages for extended periods on request, either in the voice mail system or in other locations.
  2. Request senders to re-submit information as e-mail or written communications
    Although this alternative is not always feasible, voice mail recipients may be justified in making such requests when the messages are of such importance that their contents need to be documented and retained for legal, administrative or other purposes, such as when messages authorize or direct certain actions. Receipt of these written communications may reduce or eliminate retention needs for the voice messages.
  3. Prepare a paper "note to the file" summarizing the contents of important messages
    Recipients of voice mail messages could prepare such a note which they would file with related records in the office recordkeeping system. This is an easy solution to implement, representing a good faith attempt to document messages in a convenient fashion, especially when continued retention of the original messages is impractical. The drawback is that this solution does not preserve the actual messages and questions could be raised about the accuracy of the "note to the file."
  4. Add software to PCs to enable significant voice mail messages to be migrated to the PCs as digital files
    If this method is chosen, offices should consider adding the software to only select PCs in order to limit costs, with voice mail recipients then forwarding those messages worth preserving to staff with that software. The advantage of this solution is that it saves messages in original format. Disadvantages include the expense of purchasing the software and that it may be perceived as "overkill” as a technique to preserve messages. It also requires that the digital versions of messages then be managed and retained for required retention periods.
  5. Re-record messages to a tape recorder
    Staff members or officials could preserve important messages by re-recording them to a tape recorder and preserving the tape. This choice is less high-tech than the previous alternative, although it also preserves the messages in original form. However, it also involves expense and is highly inconvenient.
  6. Prepare transcripts
    Consider having a staff member or stenographer transcribe important messages on a word-by-word basis and then file those transcripts in the office recordkeeping system. This solution preserves the exact content of the messages as paper documents, but it is time-consuming and expensive to prepare transcripts, especially if a certified transcript is prepared by a stenographer.

Choosing the best alternative

Which of the above alternatives is best? When State agency or local government officials or staff members receive voice mail messages which merit retention because of the importance of the information being communicated, they should review the alternatives to determine which is most appropriate under the circumstances. Alternatives 1, 2 and 3 should be considered first to determine if they would prove adequate. Alternatives 4, 5 and 6 may be appropriate if the message is of highly important or critical value. Keep in mind that most messages are of transitory value and can be deleted immediately after opening, without preserving either the voice message itself or a paper version.

Sending voice mail

Because State agency and local government officials and staff typically do not have access to voice mail messages they leave on the phone systems of others, there is no “record” for the sender of such messages, but only for those receiving the messages. Nonetheless, callers always have the ability to prepare a “note to the file” to document important voice mail messages left with others or to summarize in-person or telephone discussions with others when such documentation is viewed as desirable.