Comment: Practice makes perfect

Building an Electronic Records Archive at the National Archives and Records Administration: Recommendations for Initial Development

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The most exciting initiative in federal information technology today is the Electronic Records Archives program at the National Archives and Records Administration.

NARA officials are trying to crack the conundrum of how to preserve and access today's digital information 100 years or more from now. This work has never been done before; it is work beyond the cutting edge of computer science.

The National Research Council has issued a preliminary and thought-provoking report on NARA's ERA program. Among the many findings in the draft, the council urges the agency to find more high-tech experts for its daunting task.

NARA officials responded to the draft report by saying they were disappointed with the findings. On the issue of high-tech expertise, NARA officials seemed to believe they were doing well on their own, thank you. But I suggest NARA needs all the IT help it can get.

The sad fact is that NARA has virtually no practical knowledge of handling electronic records. Sure, the agency houses untold masses of e-records, the largest collection in the world, but NARA officials are clueless about managing e-records.

NARA officials do not practice e-records management — they still print their own e-records to paper. Several years ago, the agency held one pilot test of e-records management that, in my judgment, was an outstanding example of how to botch a pilot. Too many fingers stuck into the pie, plus vendor and contractor failures, led to an "educational experience" and little else.

Today, NARA is trying a second pilot, yet the agency has no long-term plans for applying e-records management to its own records.

Even worse, when U.S. Archivist John Carlin testified before a House subcommittee in July, he said that NARA still advises agencies to print their e-records to paper. Why? Because the National Archives is not yet convinced that e-records management is ready for prime time.

This cultural cast of mind is hard to fathom. The Navy Marine Corps Intranet is committing hundreds of millions of dollars to servicewide e-records management. And the much smaller Nuclear Regulatory Commission has an enterprisewide e-records management system running, to the envy of many other agencies.

Scores of other agencies are planning, piloting or implementing e-records management. Yet NARA still prints to paper and neither believes in e-records management nor applies it to agency records.

All this makes you wonder why NARA was chosen as the lead agency in the e-government initiative on e-records management.

Sprehe is president of Sprehe Information Management Associates Inc. in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at

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