Out of control: Giant US electronic records project could top $1B

GAO report says National Archives records software project could top $1.4B

The government's all-encompassing digital federal records keeping system is costing a lot more - perhaps as high as 41% more -- than originally planned and could top $1.4 billion if estimates from the Government Accountability Office are correct.

The GOA said that since 2001, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has been developing an Electronic Records Archive (ERA) to preserve and provide access to massive volumes and all types of electronic records. The Archives are responsible for billion of emails and other electronic files.  The agency is also tasked with preserving key US documents such as the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

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In acquiring the archiving system, the Archives has repeatedly revised the program schedule and increased the estimated costs for completion from $317 million to $567 million. NARA estimates it will cost  $995 million to finish the project but the GAO says the total could be more like $1.2 to $1.4 billion.  There have been 31 months worth of delays so far and the GAO estimates another 12 month delay for the final increment which would put the project's completion date into Sept. 2012.   

The problems are mostly an oversight issue according to the GAO but the NARA and contractor - Lockheed Martin -- have in the past noted delays because of what they called the unanticipated complexity of the system being developed. The government awarded Lockheed a $317 million contract for the project in 2005.

From the GAO: NARA has, to varying degrees, established selected best practices needed to manage the ERA acquisition, but weaknesses exist in most areas. For example, the scope of effort in ERA's work breakdown structure is not adequately defined, thus impeding the ability to measure progress made on contractor deliverables. These weaknesses exist in part because NARA lacks a comprehensive [project management plan known as earned value management] as well as policy, training, and specialized resources and it also frequently replans the program. As a result, NARA has not been positioned to identify potential cost and schedule problems early and thus has not been able to take timely actions to correct problems and avoid program schedule delays and cost increases.

"Our projection assumes that past trends are indicative of future performance and does not take into account the degree of difficulty of the  work being performed. This is critical because the work that remains includes system integration and testing activities that are complex and often the most challenging to complete based on our review of programs, " the GAO stated." ...contractor-provided data from January 2009 to June 2010, show that the contractor has exceeded its cost target by $1.6 million not completed about $2 million worth of planned work. The contractor reported that the negative cost and schedule variances are largely due unanticipated development work required to integrate specific commercial-off-the-shelf products into the base system and unplanned software code growth in key areas.... "

Even when completed the ysystem could still find problems.  According to published reports: The Archives' inspector general, who also has scrutinized problems with the project, concluded last year that the system will lack a fully searchable database for the public. Searchers will be able to find subject lines but will not be able to search the full text of a document, Inspector General Paul Brachfeld said.

From the Arizona Daily Star: "Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero, responding to a draft of the GAO report, agreed with most of the findings and said his staff plans to address them soon. He disagreed with auditors' estimate of the project cost, saying the cost of project management, planning and research should not be included."

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