In an interview Aug. 21 2009, Paul Brachfeld, NARA’s inspector general, stressed the importance of making the government’s digital records readily searchable and retrievable for analysis and litigation, which ERA promises to do. But there’s a catch.
“To me, we’re kind of setting ourselves up as the only show in town for future access and analysis of records, and if it works, great,” he said. “If it doesn’t work, we got problems.”
This is why a challenge is facing NARA, the tools of the trade that have served NARA for a long time are no longer sufficient. With much of the business of government conducted online, NARA must transform itself by developing new tools, techniques and policies for ensuring that electronic records are searchable and accessible, not just now but for years to come.
Open-government advocates are pushing for the next archivist to take a more active role in ensuring public access to government information, fueled by President Barack Obama’s commitment to increasing transparency. And the agency must address concerns about its ability to protect sensitive documents, which was called into question by a recent revelation that an external hard drive containing sensitive and potentially classified files from the Bill Clinton administration’s White House is missing from a NARA facility.
The swiftness with which digital formats, technologies and architectures become obsolete is of particular concern to those charged with preserving records in perpetuity. And the longer it takes to develop the solutions, the bigger the avalanche of digital data will grow.
The Government Accountability Office expects NARA’s next-generation archive to cost more than $550 million, and NARA had already spent more than $237 million by the end of fiscal 2008. NARA officials refer to the project as the archives of the future and say it won’t depend on any particular software or hardware, something that is important to accommodate changes in technology.
But in its most recent semiannual report to Congress, NARA’s Office of Inspector General listed the ERA program at the top of the management challenges that the agency faces. GAO has also raised concerns about some aspects of the project.
GAO recently reported that NARA’s spending plan for ERA didn’t have enough detail and the agency didn’t have a contingency plan for the system or a fully functional backup and restoration process. Auditors also 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’s acting archivist, Adrienne Thomas, said agency officials briefed Congress in April on specific outcomes ERA would achieve, adding that the agency would include more details in the next spending plan. She also said the agency is in the process of updating its project management tool and conducting a final review of its contingency plan for the system.
Meanwhile, even after revising its initial schedule for the system, NARA said it’s on track to achieve full operating capability when its contract with Lockheed Martin ends in March 2012. The contract is worth about $317 million.
NARA officials told reporters Sept. 2 that they had ingested 67G of data into an ERA system for federal records and 64.4T of searchable records from the George W. Bush administration. The Bush administration total of 77T is about 35 times the amount of data received from the Clinton administration, they said.
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