Senate slashes NARA's archiving plans

NARA Electronic Records Archives site

If the Senate successfully defers funding for the National Archives and Records Administration's Electronic Records Archives (ERA) for a year, the agency will have to ask for almost twice as much money for the program in fiscal 2005, officials said last week.

The cutting-edge system, which experts are watching carefully, is intended to develop the technologies and processes for handling electronic records into the future.

The Senate Appropriations Committee said in its report on the fiscal 2004 appropriations bill that it is deferring the $35.9 million for the multiyear ERA program because of management concerns raised in a recent General Accounting Office report.

The committee highlighted GAO's assertion that "NARA may be unable to independently track the cost and schedule of the ERA project" and directed the office to report back on the issue by May 2004.

NARA officials warned, however, that should the funding not come through, "we estimate it would cost us another $25 [million] to $28 million to get us back to where we are today," said program director Ken Thibodeau.

The basic problem is that there currently is no solution — commercial or customized — for handling electronic records into the future that will allow someone to search for and retrieve in its original context and condition an electronic record that was generated even just a few years ago.

Earlier this year, the agency released a request for proposals for the initial system, and the project's schedule includes several milestones for 2004.

Pulling funding for even one year could have a long-term impact on the program, experts agreed.

"NARA has momentum going for them, and suddenly they have the rug pulled out from under them," said J. Timothy Sprehe, a records management expert and president of Sprehe Information Management Associates Inc. in Washington, D.C.

For one thing, "it's quite likely they'll have to let key people go...and it will be very hard to rehire them," he said.

Thibodeau said that was one of his biggest concerns. The program would lose significant expertise and ground because the agency would be forced to terminate its long-term support and development contract, he said.

Industry leaders are already starting to reassess the future of the program. Many major federal contractors have started to develop solution teams, looking to the ERA program as a source of funding for a new market in electronic records management, and they will have to think hard about whether they will still devote resources to a program with shaky funding, said an official at a records management vendor who requested anonymity.

The lack of a lobbying force on Capitol Hill for electronic records in general and NARA in particular will likely continue to cause problems for the ERA program, said Rick Barry, a records management consultant and principal with Barry Associates in Arlington, Va.

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