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Watchdog: Records database is at risk of serious delays, cost overruns

A National Archives and Records Administration project to establish a searchable, electronic database of government documents is running far behind schedule and is likely to incur several hundred million dollars in cost overruns by the time it's finished, according to a new analysis by the Government Accountability Office.

The GAO report, filed at the request of Sen. Thomas Carper, D-Del., and Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., found that NARA's Electronic Records Archive program likely will be only 65 percent complete by the projected end-date of this September. Furthermore, its price tag could end up $193 million to $433 million higher than expected, analysts concluded. The archive is one aspect of the federal government's renewed commitment to upgrading its technological infrastructure.

GAO attributed these shortfalls to NARA's limited implementation of earned value management, a technique for measuring performance against cost and expectations. The report found that of 11 best practices for an effective earned value management system, NARA "fully met" two, "partially met" seven and failed to meet two others. Continued shifting of baseline expectations during the project -- which began in 2001 -- has made it impossible for NARA to effectively examine progress using earned value management, analysts stated.

"Without effectively implementing EVM," GAO wrote in the report, "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."

GAO recommended NARA "establish a comprehensive plan for all remaining work; improve the accuracy of earned value performance reports; and engage executive leadership in correcting negative trends."

NARA generally concurred with those suggestions, though it disputed GAO's assessment of the project's status and costs. Based on NARA's original plan and goals, GAO predicted the electronic database will be fully developed by March 2017 -- 67 months after the National Archive's projection -- and will cost a total of $1.2 billion to $1.4 billion. The current NARA estimate puts the life-cycle cost of ERA at $995 million.

GAO warned its estimates might even be conservative, as they did not take the difficulty of the remaining work into account. "This is critical," the report stated, "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 similar IT programs. ... Final costs at completion could be even higher."

But NARA countered that July 2010 changes to the original development plan will curb those costs significantly. U.S. Archivist David Ferriero released a statement on Friday saying not only will NARA finish developing the electronic records system in September, but it also will come in under cost. "Our detailed records show that system development for ERA will total $282 million for the period ending in September 2011; including operations and maintenance costs, the total will be $463 million," he said.

According to the GAO report, NARA's figures do not include "nondevelopmental costs" such as research, project management and concept exploration. "We disagree that this reflects the true cost of developing the system," GAO wrote. The watchdog did, however, concede that its projections were based on NARA's original approach to the project and that changes made following a July 2010 Office of Management and Budget request could have an impact.

Carper and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, released a joint statement on Friday, highlighting GAO's findings and calling for greater oversight of federal information technology projects. "We are routinely seeing IT projects fail because of poor planning, ill-defined and shifting requirements, undisclosed difficulties, and lack of consistent monitoring," Collins said. "Senator Carper and I will be reintroducing legislation this Congress that is intended to prevent these types of IT project failures by increasing oversight with the power to suspend commitment of funds to a project until necessary changes are made."

Collins and Carper will reintroduce the Information Technology Investment Oversight Enhancement and Waste Prevention Act "in the coming months," Carper said. According to Collins, "This legislation will aim to reduce the risk of projects exceeding deadlines and cost parameters, while ensuring the delivery of their intended capabilities."

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// December 18
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