NARA plots ambitious e-archiving system

NARA's Electronic Records Archives Web site

Officials at the National Archives and Records Administration and the General Accounting Office have different ideas about how NARA should proceed with its ambitious electronic archiving system.

By the end of this year, NARA expects to release a request for proposals (RFP) for its Electronic Records Archives program, the agency's first comprehensive effort to automate the archiving of valuable federal records in digital form.

But even before the RFP's release, officials from GAO are recommending that NARA institute a program timeout so it can reassess and fix the system's acquisition strategy. NARA officials, however, say they already are implementing GAO's recommendations and no further delay is needed.

A National Research Council committee report commissioned by NARA recommended earlier this year that the agency "move forward as quickly as possible" with what many experts agree will be a challenging project.

"No comparable electronic archive system is now in existence, in terms of either complexity or scale," Linda Koontz, GAO's director of information management issues, told a subcommittee of the House Government Reform Committee July 8. Furthermore, she said, NARA has never bought a major information system, and its information technology organization has limitations.

Kenneth Thibodeau, the agency's Electronic Records Archive program director, however, told Federal Computer Week that NARA is well along the path toward correcting the flaws Koontz cited. "We've been laying down the administrative infrastructure that big agencies already have" for acquiring major systems and managing their implementation, he said.

The program not only is massive and dependent on technology that isn't there yet, he said, but it also requires NARA to re- engineer its business processes. As a result, officials postponed the RFP's release from an August target date to December, Thibodeau said.

Rep. Adam Putnam, (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Technology, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations and the Census Subcommittee, did not respond directly to Koontz's concerns.

The Electronic Records Archives will preserve only 2 percent to 3 percent of the records federal agencies generate, but the collection will grow to about 11,000 terabytes by 2014, NARA officials say.

They want the new system to receive information in a variety of electronic formats and retain it so that the records remain useful after the technology that created them has become obsolete.

Agency officials believe information systems create about half of agency records. Most records are not saved, and those that are saved generally are kept in the form of printouts, according to testimony.

NARA's top official, U.S. Archivist John Carlin, said that "achieving governmentwide [electronic records management] requires a multiyear effort by all agencies." He said archiving should be part of the e-government infrastructure.

E-records management is one of the 24 e-government initiatives sponsored by the Bush administration, and records management has been incorporated into the proposed federal enterprise architecture.

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Firsthand experience

Most federal agencies print electronically created documents they intend to save and then archive the paper copies. U.S. Archivist John Carlin says that's all right. In fact, the National Archives and Records Administration encourages agencies to use paper as the official record, he told the House Government Reform Committee's Technology, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations and the Census Subcommittee.

Rep. Adam Putnam (R-Fla.), the tech-savvy chairman of that subcommittee, recalled how he relied on paper during a time of crisis.

He was on Air Force One Sept. 11, 2001. For security reasons, the plane's computer system was turned off, but before that happened, Putnam sent e-mail messages to his wife and other loved ones. Although he didn't say so, the messages must have carried his final words of love in case the disaster took an even heavier toll.

Then he printed out the messages in case the communications system failed but items from the plane survived.

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