Should NARA be the e-archiving cop?

ERA status check

Government auditors credited the National Archives and Records Administration in response to problems with Lockheed Martin’s performance in building the agency’s new Electronic Records Archives.

Officials now say the program is back on track and will be completed by the original 2011 goal. But the Government Accountability Office said questions remain about whether the presidential records portion will be ready to receive President George W. Bush’s electronic records.

Once it is fully deployed, the ERA system will be able to:
1.Accept electronic records from federal agencies.

2.Manage storage in a way that guarantees integrity and availability.

3.Search descriptions and content of electronic records.

4.Support records management scheduling, appraisal and description.

5.Provide secure and reliable storage of files as well as backups.

6.Regulate communication between ERA components.

— Ben Bain

The National Archives and Records Administration has let agencies and the White House slide on compliance with federal records laws, and it has not been forceful about asking Congress for necessary funding, some critics contend.

NARA’s inspector general and other officials blasted the agency during a hearing last week, alleging that NARA’s lack of forceful action might lead to the loss of electronic records. Their concerns stem from NARA’s track record in electronic records management, including the agency’s decade-long $450 million project to build an electronic records archives. That project has faced delays because of contractor issues.

Critics also are concerned about the Bush administration’s alleged loss of millions of White House e-mail messages and NARA’s monitoring of agencies’ electronic recordkeeping practices. 

Paul Brachfeld, the agency’s IG, said NARA’s collegial approach to ensuring that agencies are complying with records laws is inadequate. Brachfeld testified May 14 before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s Federal Financial Management, Government Information, Federal Services and International Security Subcommittee.

Brachfeld said he supported legislation that would give NARA additional authority to ensure that agencies are complying with federal records laws in their internal electronic recordkeeping practices.
“If NARA does not assume this role, then I ask, who will?” Brachfeld asked. “NARA traditionally has not viewed itself as an enforcement entity but rather one that focuses upon collegiality and relationships. I believe that given limited cognizance into agency recordkeeping processes, a void exists in which inappropriate treatment or loss of federal records may well be occurring.”

Chief Archivist Allen Weinstein rejected Brachfeld’s criticism of how NARA has handled the Electronic Records Archives project. NARA has corrected its problems with its contractor, Lockheed Martin, and will achieve initial operating capability by the end of next month, Weinstein said.

Open-government advocates and historians who testified also had concerns about NARA’s oversight.
“There has got to be a sea change in [NARA’s] role,” said Thomas Blanton, director of George Washington University’s National Security Archive. NARA has been afraid to press agencies and the White House to comply, he said, adding that “Congress is going to have to do the backbone transplant.”
Patrice McDermott, director of OpenTheGovernment.org, told the subcommittee that NARA’s decision to abandon its previous practice of conducting annual audits is troubling. NARA has said responsibility for compliance rests with the agencies.

NARA also said that since 2004 the agency has completed six surveys of agencies’ electronic records management practices and has revamped its guidance on managing e-records. The agency also said it will be reinvigorating its inspecting and reporting activities in the coming months.

House lawmakers proposed legislation last month that would give NARA greater electronic recordkeeping oversight authority over federal agencies and the White House.

However, some policy observers say funding could affect the degree to which NARA could expand its oversight. Although the agency has received some budget increases, its annual budget remains at a paltry $400 million, leaving little room for expansion or missteps, they say.

“We have been an agency that has almost been afraid to ask for what we need,” Brachfeld said. “There’s a flood of paper records still coming our way. There’s a flood of electronic records coming our way. Our staff has not really grown.”

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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