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Upheaval at the National Archives
Posted On March 10, 2011
Who knew that libraries, records, and archives could be so controversial? It’s rare to find an archive as headline news, but the first quarter of 2011 has not ended and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has seen its name in lights for two seemingly independent issues: Suspended development of the Electronic Records Archive (ERA) and closure of the Archives Library and Information Center (ALIC). What happened to set off this furor was the release of two documents: Memorandum 2011-113 issued by the Archivist of the United States (AOTUS), David S. Ferriero, on Feb. 14 and the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) Report to Congressional Committees, Electronic Government: National Archives and Records Administration’s Fiscal Year 2011 Expenditure Plan (GAO-11-299) published on March 4.

NARA Notice 2011-113 carried a seemingly routine subject line “President Requests $422M for National Archives 2012 Budget.” NARA is operating under a Continuing Resolution Authority holding spending to FY2010 levels until the FY2011 budget is approved. While the total budget request is 8.2 percent lower in FY2012 than in FY2011, funding of some projects within NARA are down considerably more, notably the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) whose grant making authority is reduced by 50%, from $10 million to $5 million.

On Feb. 17, the AOTUS Collector in Chief blog, aptly titled “Doing more with less,” summed up the budget situation that NARA and other Federal agencies are facing, outlining how NARA would be proceeding in a thoughtful manner to carry out its mission “to preserve the nation’s important records and make them accessible to the public as soon as possible” (NARA press release, Feb. 14, 2011). One budget saving measure is the decision to stop development of the Electronic Records Archives (ERA) and move directly into an operations and maintenance (O & M) mode. This transition at the end of FY 2011 will reduce program expenditures by $36,300,000. Beginning in FY 2012, ERA will become an operational system and will be moved into the Agency’s Operating Expenses (OE) appropriation.

Why ERA and What Does the Transition to O & M Mean?

While formally established in 1934, NARA has been the nation’s repository of records that document the nation’s history since 1775. By the 1980s, most records created within Federal agencies were digital, and NARA sought a way to be able to preserve and manage these new formats, as well as prepare itself for formats not yet envisioned. The Electronic Records Archives (ERA) is the nation’s response: a comprehensive system for preserving and providing continuing access to any type of electronic records created anywhere within the U. S. Federal Government. It will store and maintain records in the format they were created so as to retain the records’ authenticity. Additionally, the ERA System provides workflow support for the scheduling and transfer processes that facilitate the safe transfer of electronic records from Federal agencies to NARA, capabilities for ingest, storage, and archival preservation of those records at the Archives, and access to electronic records by the public.

On Sept. 8, 2005 NARA awarded a contract to Lockheed Martin to design and develop the nation’s effort to preserve and manage  “electronic records and to manage the lifecycle of paper records and other holdings, including support for records retention schedules and the accessioning process for all Federal records”. NARA expected Lockheed to proceed incrementally, each year building on the progress made during the prior year, launching ERA’s initial operating capability by 2007 and to have it fully operational by 2011 at a cost of $308 million.

The GAO’s review of NARA’s FY2011 expenditure plan concluded that the Agency’s “expenditure plan satisfies four of the six legislative conditions and partially satisfies two.” Where NARA was deemed deficient was in its Capital Planning and Investment Control (CPIC) review (i.e., not documenting approval of schedule and scope changes and not validating estimated benefits and costs of deployed ERA capabilities). Additionally, expenditure plans for large-scale IT projects must be approved by the OMB, and NARA’s expenditures for FY2011 have not been approved. This is not the first time that ERA cost overruns and extension of schedule deadlines have been recognized by the Agency, those with oversight responsibilities, or the public.

Five years in development, and with fewer than 10% of the nation’s largest agencies utilizing the system to date, ERA is one of 16 high-risk technology projects under review through TechStat, an evidence-based review of a Federal agency IT investment that appears to be underperforming. In December 2010, with cost of the system estimated at $567 million (as of February 2010), and with development running behind schedule, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) instructed NARA “to discontinue the development component at the end of fiscal year 2011.” Their feeling appears to be that the system is probably as good as it’s going to get, and as much as everyone would like to launch a “perfect” system with all of the bells-and-whistles that everyone wants, the cost of another year of development will not yield the benefits to warrant the work. According to David Lake, ERA communications manager, NARA has known that development was likely to end soon and has been working to set priorities for functionality that would allow the Agency to roll it out.

What does this mean for the system? While NARA had a sixth option year on its contract with Lockheed Martin for development, and a seventh year for operations and maintenance, the Agency already has announced a recompete for ERA O&M; NARA anticipates a single contract award in late June/early July 2011 for a one-year base contract and nine one-year options. NARA must now focus on getting the agencies trained and using the system. Perhaps some of the back office functions, online chat, and advanced workflow tools will be added to the system in the future. Beyond maintaining the operational system, there are dollars in the O&M contract for “corrective and adaptive maintenance,” including enhancing workflow capabilities.

By the end of this year, thirty of the nation’s largest federal agencies will be using the ERA; by the end of 2012, all agencies will be required to use the system to store their records. ERA has managed well with the level of use within the pilot programs, but we have yet to see how the system will deliver when it is in full use by all agencies for all types of records. Will agencies participate at the anticipated levels, or will the volume require a change in the storage plan? We may never know what the effect of an additional year or two of development may have meant for the system. Hopefully, we will not be paying for patches and work-arounds as a result of any short-sightedness. On the plus side, records will be available to the public sooner because we now have the ERA.

NARA Charts a New Course

On Jan. 31, Ferriero approved NARA’s Transformational Launch Team’s report, Charter for Change: Charting the Course, which includes:

§  A set of values reflecting workers’ aspirations “to build an open, inclusive work environment, to encourage creativity and investment in innovation, and to pursue excellence through continuous learning,” along with recommendations for applying those values across the Agency

§  A new organization that will allow enable staff to achieve the desired transformational outcomes as they relate to:

  • One NARA: Work as one NARA and not just as component parts
  • Out in Front: Embrace the primacy of electronic information in all facets of our work and position NARA to lead accordingly
  • An Agency of Leaders: Foster a culture of leadership, not just as a position but as the way we all conduct our work
  • A Great Place to Work: Transform NARA into a great place to work through trust and empowerment of all of our people, the agency’s most vital resource
  • A Customer-Driven Organization: Create structures and processes to allow our staff to more effectively meet the needs of our customers
  • An Open NARA: Open our organizational boundaries to learn from others.

§  Identification of “Quick Win” action items in support of NARA’s transformation.

The launch team consulted with all levels and types of employees throughout the Agency. New offices and positions were announced, including:

  • Research Services, combining two separate offices to create one service for researchers accessing the records of the National Archives
  • Information Services to spark creativity and develop innovative tools that help people discover the records of the National Archives
  • The Chief Records Officer will lead records management throughout the Federal government with an emphasis on electronic records
  • The Chief Operating Officer will provide operational leadership to the agency
  • The Human Capital Office will drive employee engagement by investing in staff and their development
  • Business Support Services will help the agency function with efficiency by providing the services that staff need to do their work

Change cannot occur without the closure of some offices, downsizing of some operations, and a shift of human resources to support more critical activities. Effective Oct. 1, 2011, NARA will close its Boston-Pittsfield Annex. The Annex houses Archives microfilm publications and public access computers and served about 1,800 researchers during the last fiscal year. Two long-term NARA employees will be offered other positions within the Agency (which also will pick up relocation expenses for them and their families).

A third cost-saving measure announced by NARA is its decision to reduce the scope of the Archives Library Information Center (ALIC).

The move affects seven staff members, who will be offered other opportunities at NARA, and will curtail costs associated with adding materials to the ALIC collection. ALIC was originally designed and staffed to meet the information needs of NARA staff members, and it currently helps support public archival research. Reference materials from the ALIC space at Archives I (Washington, D.C.) will be relocated to assist consultation in Archives I research rooms and to provide a continuing presence at Archives II (College Park, MD). Online library reference services will become the primary information resource for staff.

What we all want to be sure is that NARA does not make the same mistake as have others in closing libraries prematurely. Readers may recall our series of NewsBreaks on the closure of the EPA library network and inappropriate decisions made with regard to the disposition of print materials. In a message that has been carried by several library bloggers, Bernadine Abbott Hoduski, who founded the American Library Association (ALA) Government Documents Roundtable (GODORT) in 1972, raises some serious questions concerning the holdings of that collection and responsibilities for maintenance of the virtual online reference service once staff moves on. An update from Jessica McGilvray, ALA Governmental Information Subcommittee indicates that:

  • The library will remain open and staffed and public access will remain
  • The library collection will remain intact (with the exception of the bound serial set being moved because the library has purchased an online version)
  • Like most libraries facing budget cuts, acquisitions will be substantially reduced
  • Seven positions will be reassigned, not laid off
  • The records management process with the Government Printing Office will not be affected by this merge

Librarians and researchers express concerns regarding NARA’s decision to move to a nearly virtual model for ALIC not because it’s necessarily bad or different; they balk that the library appears to be the first cost-saving measure considered. If it were a continuation of the Agency’s determination to serve its staff and the public in the best possible manner no one would be concerned, but a quick call to the NARA press office revealed that ALIC’s closure was solely in response to budget cuts.

Everyone recognizes the new environments in which we work, and the new tools that enable us to do for ourselves (i.e., discover documents through the use of intelligent search) that we once relied on others to do for us. The fact that experienced staff familiar with the library’s materials will remain within the Agency gives us hope that appropriate methods will be taken to ensure that their knowledge is not lost. Concerns regarding specific collections (e.g., RG287, collection of several million government documents collected and cataloged by GPO, transferred to NARA in 1972) should publicly be addressed so that all stakeholders are satisfied that the particular document collections of concern to them are not overlooked. Given the GAO’s concerns about ERA oversight, we hope that NARA has done an appropriate analysis of the benefits to be derived from such a move, and will proceed cautiously during the transition, making sure that all stakeholders’ needs are addressed.

Lessons Learned?

Perhaps Lockheed Martin tackled more than it could manage in a reasonable timeframe because of the nature of its cost-plus contract (as opposed to a firm-fixed price, where all estimated costs and profit are established at the time that the contract is awarded and all parties understand that the contractor must deliver the proscribed services regardless of the cost). If the contract had been chunked into smaller pieces, with deliverables along the way, NARA, OMB, and GAO would have been happier. Of course, the fact that this new technology was meant not to automate a business process, but create entirely new business processes that are not used anywhere else, made the project unique. We’ll know how it all turns out soon enough.

Barbie E. Keiser is an information resources management consultant located in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area.

Email Barbie E. Keiser

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Comments Add A Comment
Posted By 3/20/2011 12:47:16 PM

Thanks for the informative post!

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