Archives officials: Pay for ERA now, or pay more later

If the Senate's decision to defer funding for the National Archives and Records Administration's Electronic Records Archives program for a year goes through, the agency will have to ask for almost twice as much money in fiscal 2005, officials said.

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 electronic records program because of management concerns raised by a recent General Accounting Office report. The Senate committee highlighted "GAO's assertion that NARA may be unable to independently track the cost and schedule of the ERA project," and directed GAO to report back on the issue by May 2004.

And what if the funding doesn't come through? "We estimate it would cost us another $25 to $28 million to get us back to where we are today," said Ken Thibodeau, director of the electronic records project, which is intended to develop the technology and processes for handling electronic records for the future.

Currently there is no way for someone search for and retrieve — in its original context and condition — an electronic record generated as recently as a few years ago. Since 1998, the NARA has spent approximately $35 million to develop internal capabilities for handling electronic records, Thibodeau said. The agency released the request for proposals for the initial system earlier this year, and there are several milestones scheduled for fiscal 2004. Officials expect to be able to give their project schedule to the Office of Management and Budget by the end of the month, Thibodeau said.

"This is a critical need due to the volume and rapid obsolescence of electronic records today, let alone in the future," NARA officials said in a statement.

There are still many steps that the appropriations bill must go through before it becomes law, and agency officials hope that they will be able to work with Congress to make sure the money is in place for the coming fiscal year. If the current version of the appropriations bill passes the full Senate, NARA officials say they would try to get the funding for electronic records restored when both houses of Congress hammer out a bill in conference committee.

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