Making the case

With the Bush administration requesting $87 billion more for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, agency officials would be wise to keep business case studies for their technology projects within arm's reach.

Whatever amount of money ends up being allocated for the military operations, both Congress and the administration will scrutinize every line item in the fiscal 2004 budget and beyond, looking for programs they could, in good conscience, cut or delay.

That appears to be the fate of the Electronic Records Archive. Earlier this month, the Senate Appropriations Committee deferred $35.9 million earmarked for the project, freeing fiscal 2004 funds for more pressing requirements.

The move essentially is a vote of no confidence for the National Archives and Records Administration. In its report, the Senate committee cited a General Accounting Office study about NARA's ability to track the cost and schedule of the proposed archiving system.

NARA officials argue that a one-year delay could have a long-term impact on the program, and cost the government even more money in future years.

That could well be the case and is cause for concern. It's often difficult to get outsiders interested in e-records management, but experts know that digital documents are now vital to the public record — and the public record is an underpinning of a democratic government.

But the current fiscal environment is forcing Congress and the administration to think hard about their priorities. And the low-hanging fruit in any budget negotiation are programs that lack a compelling rationale or, in the case of the archives project, that look like a risky investment.

In such a scenario, a good business case study could be a program's last and best defense. It not should not only explain a project's rationale, but also give the administration and Congress the assurance that the necessary management controls are in place.

A good business case is no guarantee that a project won't end up on a congressional cutting room floor. But at least the study would give it a fighting chance.

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