GAO: Details needed on electronic records system

The National Archives and Records Administration’s (NARA) current spending plan for its next generation Electronic Records Archive, (ERA), estimated to cost more than $550 million, doesn't have enough details and the agency doesn’t have a contingency plan for the system or a fully functional backup and restoration process, according to congressional investigators.

The Government Accountability Office found methodological weaknesses during a review of NARA's fiscal 2009 spending plan for the program that could limit its ability to keep tabs on the project NARA calls the “Archives of the Future.”

However, GAO said in a report released July 24 that the expenditure plan did satisfy legislative requirements. In March, NARA finalized its 2009 spending plan to support the agency’s request for $67 million in ERA funding.

NARA officials say that once it is complete the ERA system will be able to handle, preserve, manage and provide sustained access to all types of electronic records, independent of any specific type of software or hardware. NARA announced in June 2008 that the ERA system had reached initial operating capability.

“Without more specific and accurate information on the immediate and long-term goals of the program and the outcomes expected from its resulting efforts, NARA will be hindered in effectively monitoring and reporting on the cost, schedule, and performance of the ERA system, and congressional appropriators will lack information necessary to evaluate the agency’s requests for funds,” the GAO report stated.

GAO also said that as of late April, NARA had put into the ERA system for presidential records just 2.3 terabytes, or less than 3 percent, of 78.4 terabytes worth of unclassified records the agency received from the Bush administration.

Meanwhile, NARA has pushed back the expected completion date for putting those presidential records into the system from May until October, GAO said. GAO found that although NARA had obligated almost $40 million for the presidential records component, the agency was instead answering most requests for Bush electronic records though other systems.

GAO recommended that the head of NARA:

  • Report to Congress on the specific outcomes to be achieved by ERA program funding for the rest of this fiscal year.
  • Provide detailed information on future spending plans.
  • Strengthen the project management tool so it follows GAO’s best practices.
  • Include in NARA’s next spending plan an analysis of the costs and benefits of using the ERA system for presidential records compared with existing systems being used to respond to requests.
  • Develop and implement a system contingency plan for ERA that follows contingency guidance for federal systems.

In a written response to GAO, Adrienne Thomas, NARA's acting head, said the agency was taking, or had taken, action to deal with four of the five recommendations. Thomas said NARA had briefed Congress in April on specific outcomes to be achieved by ERA and that further details would be added to the next spending plan.

Thomas also said NARA is in the process of updating its project management tool and a contingency plan for the system was in its final review. However, Thomas disagreed with GAO's observation that the ERA system for presidential records is not currently fulfilling its intended purpose. She also said GAO’s recommendation to do a cost comparison was problematic because it doesn’t seem cost-effective to conduct a retrospective analysis.

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