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.

The Fed 100

Read the profiles of all this year's winners.

Featured

  • Then-presidential candidate Donald Trump at a 2016 campaign event. Image: Shutterstock

    'Buy American' order puts procurement in the spotlight

    Some IT contractors are worried that the "buy American" executive order from President Trump could squeeze key innovators out of the market.

  • OMB chief Mick Mulvaney, shown here in as a member of Congress in 2013. (Photo credit Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

    White House taps old policies for new government makeover

    New guidance from OMB advises agencies to use shared services, GWACs and federal schedules for acquisition, and to leverage IT wherever possible in restructuring plans.

  • Shutterstock image (by Everett Historical): aerial of the Pentagon.

    What DOD's next CIO will have to deal with

    It could be months before the Defense Department has a new CIO, and he or she will face a host of organizational and operational challenges from Day One

  • USAF Gen. John Hyten

    General: Cyber Command needs new platform before NSA split

    U.S. Cyber Command should be elevated to a full combatant command as soon as possible, the head of Strategic Command told Congress, but it cannot be separated from the NSA until it has its own cyber platform.

  • Image from Shutterstock.

    DLA goes virtual

    The Defense Logistics Agency is in the midst of an ambitious campaign to eliminate its IT infrastructure and transition to using exclusively shared, hosted and virtual services.

  • Fed 100 logo

    The 2017 Federal 100

    The women and men who make up this year's Fed 100 are proof positive of what one person can make possibile in federal IT. Read on to learn more about each and every winner's accomplishments.

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group