Records Management: NARA Pulls Plug on Records System
NARA is the organization in the federal government tasked with the historical archival and records management of the documents and written artifacts created across all federal government agencies. NARA dates back to the creation of the US National Archives in 1934. The initial charter of the organization focused on the historical preservation of documents and later was expanded to include tasks related to Records Management. Early on the national Archives took the lead in defining best practices around Records Management. The structure and methodology for Records Management developed by the National Archives has had a tremendous influence on the adoption and use of Records Management in the private sector.Given that as the background for NARA, the news over the last couple of years about how NARA has been coping with the growth in the number of documents, data, and information in the federal government has been disappointing. While NARA once set an example for best practices in the area of historical document preservation and Records Management, over the last decade NARA seems to have fallen significantly behind the curve.NARA is struggling to come to grips with how to handle email and social media archiving as well as just being able to cope with very large amounts of data. Large numbers of important documents have been lost or were never even targeted for archival. By some estimates, 83 percent of emails during the recent Bush administration were never saved and are lost. Clinton-era information has been lost. Historic NASA videos and images were lost. And 80 percent of federal agencies are currently at risk of illegally deleting records that should be maintained.But, things may be changing. It looks like David Ferriero, head of the National Archives, is attempting to right the course of the organization. At the beginning of March, Ferriero announced a sweeping re-organization at NARA. And late last week word came out that the decision has been made to pull the plug on a problem-plagued computer modernization project that has been underway at NARA for more than six years. A recent GAO report found that the NARA ERA program was mismanaged and had massive cost overruns. The report characterized the program’s plan and estimates for further funding as ‘not reliable’. The plan was unable to show what functionality the system would be able to deliver and was unable to provide a time schedule for the delivery. Although, by some estimates, at the current rate of implementation, the new system may not have been ready until 2017.NARA now plans to end additional development on the ERA program by the end of this year. It isn’t clear how much of the development on the ERA program that has already been done will be salvageable or usable but NARA insists that some of the agencies — as many as 20 — will begin to use the system by the end of the year. Basic full text search over document contents isn’t working yet — it is to be handled by a search engine called Vivisimo which is currently in prototype and hope to be available for use by the end of the year.Forcing federal agencies to start using a new system which isn’t up to snuff in order to save face on this project seems to be the wrong decision. It’s sure to lead to only more costs and headaches. A better option might be to admit failure and start a more open dialog with the private sector for cooperatively sharing the task of managing our nation’s data.