Storing e-stuff

High on my list of celebrated federal information technology programs to watch is the National Archives and Records Administration's Electronic Records Archives. Here are the reflections of one observer on the ERA program.

ERA involves hundreds of millions of dollars devoted to performing a task no one has ever accomplished before — namely, guaranteeing the persistence, accessibility and usability of digital information for a long time. All major IT companies have mounted big efforts to secure ERA contract awards.

Change is the one constant in IT, but that is also its Achilles' heel. Ultimately, you cannot conduct the business of any enterprise unless you can preserve and use your critical information in the future. IT simply cannot do that today, and this is a fatal flaw throughout

industry.

NARA takes on the ERA challenge under some handicaps. NARA is hardly the first agency that comes to mind when thinking of cutting-edge IT programs. Its senior officials tend to be technically unsophisticated, and they micromanage an agency with a culture that is largely paper-

oriented. The agency has never undertaken an IT program even faintly approaching ERA's scale.

NARA's ERA program has enjoyed, shall we say, the careful scrutiny of the General Accounting Office and the National Research Council.

Meanwhile, NRC officials recommended a phased evolutionary approach to ERA's daunting assignment and urged that NARA take a pragmatic, engineering approach to ERA, building the final product in modular steps. Many fear NARA has not sufficiently heeded this advice and that the conception reflected in last month's request for proposals smacks too much of a long-discredited grand design.

So there are plenty of downsides to this project. Are there any upsides?

NARA's mission is to provide ready access to essential evidence documenting the rights of citizens, the actions of federal officials and the national experience. In the Digital Age, ERA is NARA's mission. Society in general, and government in particular, has moved to digital information forms. NARA must follow suit. In a fundamental sense, NARA simply has no choice; the agency must accomplish the ERA program.

And who better to undertake the task? NARA understands records and their preservation as no one else in government does. The agency has sought help on IT issues from the nation's best institutions and experts. After all, NARA sponsored the council's study of ERA.

NARA officials have recognized their need for outside IT expertise and has sought help every step of the way. The IT industry's advice and assistance, consistently solicited, have been prominent in ERA's development.

Achievement of the long-term preservation and accessibility of digital information, once accomplished, will bring enormous benefits to IT far beyond government — indeed, far beyond the United States. ERA's successful completion will be a major milestone in the history of IT and take archival preservation of records to a new level.

We all have an important stake in the ERA program and wish it success. Because of this, we will lament each setback in its progress and watch its every advance with eager hope.

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

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