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Stripped-down digital records archive set to debut

Mar. 8, 2011 - 06:00AM   |  
The National Archives building in Washington, D.C., is seen. The agency will launch its Electronic Records Archive at the State, Justice, and Health and Human Services departments after years of delays.
The National Archives building in Washington, D.C., is seen. The agency will launch its Electronic Records Archive at the State, Justice, and Health and Human Services departments after years of delays. (DENNY GAINER / USA TODAY)

The National Archives and Records Administration's Electronic Records Archive (ERA), after years of delays, will launch at three agencies this month, but will have fewer capabilities than originally planned.

The State, Justice and Health and Human Services departments will be the first to fully access the system to transfer electronic documents to NARA for preservation. Some of the records will be accessible to the public through an existing online portal.

Use of the system will be mandatory for all agencies by October 2012.

However, the Office of Management and Budget has ordered NARA to end development of the troubled information technology program by October of this year and then to move into the operations and maintenance phase of the project.

So far, contractor Lockheed Martin has met only a fraction between 60 percent and 70 percent of the 850 requirements in its 2003 requirements documents to develop the electronic system, said ERA communications manager David Lake. User capabilities, such as an online chat and account registration, "were put aside in order to concentrate on the core functions required to deploy the system to the entire federal government by the end of 2012."

In August, OMB identified the program as high-risk after a series of delays, cost overruns and mismanagement by the agency and Lockheed. A Jan. 13 report by the Government Accountability Office projected full operational capability of the system would be "at least 67 months behind schedule (in March 2017) and that the total life cycle cost for the program could be at least $1.2 billion," or 21 percent higher than initial estimates.

The GAO estimate assumes that NARA would continue development through 2017, Lake said. But OMB's order to end development this fiscal year means NARA will spend between $25 million and $30 million a year once the project moves into the operations and maintenance phase. "ERA is a well-conceived concept," said NARA Inspector General Paul Brachfeld in an interview. "It's the execution that has been the problem."

NARA currently manages 97.4 terabytes of electronic records one terabyte is equal to 1,000 gigabytes and is keeping pace with its goal to collect 10 terabytes of records a quarter on ERA, according to a Feb. 28 update by chief information officer Charles Piercy on the IT Dashboard, which tracks government IT investments.

The work on archiving electronic records is in addition to NARA's work to archive paper records. It must preserve and manually archive 488 terabytes of images from the 2010 Census beginning this year. Classified records from the military's Central Command will add another 40 terabytes to the load as the war in Iraq winds down.

About 2 percent of federal records are deemed permanent and must be preserved by NARA, and even fewer are considered public records. But program delays have further reduced the number of records available to the public.

Michael Carlson, ERA user adoption coordinator within NARA's modern records program, said researchers could have access to public records immediately once they are in NARA's custody, but not necessarily via online searches. They could, however, request copies of the files by mail or e-mail. Brachfeld has raised concerns that user capabilities, such as text search of records, will be truncated.

Lake said the existing public portal supports full text search for certain records, but the ability to search the text of all documents "was never our intention."

"It would be beyond our means to do that," considering the costs, required storage volume and the fact that some records, such as images and video files, are not easily text-searchable, he said. "But the general expectations are there."

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