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 apparently have different ideas of how NARA should proceed with its ambitious electronic archiving system.

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

However, even before the RFP hits the streets, officials from the GAO are already recommending that NARA institute a program time-out so that it can reassess and fix the system's acquisition strategy. NARA officials, however, say they are already implementing GAO's recommendations and that no further delay is necessary.

Indeed, 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 development 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 House Government Reform subcommittee July 8. What's more, she said, NARA has never procured a major information system and its information technology organization has limitations.

Koonts pinpointed system security and architectural alignment as two of problem areas. She said the acquisition would not conform to federal acquisition rules and industry standards as it currently stands, and basic program management controls are not in place.

However, Kenneth Thibodeau, NARA's electronic records archive program director, later told FCW that the flaws cited by Koontz are well along the path toward being corrected. "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 is not only 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, issuance of the RFP has been postponed from an August target date to December, Thibodeau said.

Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Fla., chairman of the House Subcommittee on Technology, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations and the Census, did not respond directly to Koontz's concerns. He and the other witnesses noted the difficulty of the challenges facing NARA, which has grappled with the problems of saving and managing records generated by incompatible computers that repeatedly become obsolete.

Agency officials believe about half of agency records are being created in information systems. Most are not being saved, and those that are saved generally are saved in the form of printouts, the subcommittee was told.

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 major e-government initiatives sponsored by the White House, and records management has been incorporated in the Federal Enterprise Architecture that is under development.

"NARA is under funded to tackle the grand challenge of electronic records," Richard Lysakowski, executive director of the Global Electronic Records Association, told the subcommittee.

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