Managing flood of White House records will tax NARA

GAO says system for records preservation is promising, but a contingency plan is needed.

The National Archives and Records Administration has established a workable plan to develop an information system to preserve electronic records, but the agency should consider a way to manage the possibility that it will not be able to process records from the Bush administration in time for the January 2009 transition, according to a Government Accountability Office report released on Friday.

Comment on this article in The Forum.As part of its fiscal 2008 expenditure plan submitted to Congress, NARA requested the release of $38.3 million of multiyear funds to develop the Electronic Records Archive system to preserve and provide access to electronic records. The system would store agencies' electronic records and presidential records from the Executive Office of the President.

"NARA believes that if it cannot ingest the Bush records in a way that supports search and retrieval immediately after the transition, it may not be able to effectively respond to requests from the Congress, the new administration, and the courts for these records -- a critical agency mission," GAO reported.

In response to those concerns and others about e-record preservation, NARA developed a two-prong development approach for ERA, including a base system that has initial operating capability that can be enhanced in increments, and a separate system to support the short-term flood of records that would come from the outgoing Bush administration. NARA is building the second system, known as the EOP system -- for Executive Office of the President -- using commercial products that provide basic requirements for accommodating the large volume of electronic documents, such as rapid ingestion of records and the ability to search content.

Because NARA may not complete the EOP system in time for the transition, the agency should develop a risk mitigation plan, GAO recommended. NARA intends to have a plan in place by the end of 2008, when it knows more about the volume of presidential records it will receive.

"This proposed schedule, however, will leave NARA little time to prepare for and implement the plan, decreasing the assurance that it will be adequately prepared to meet the requirements . . . for information contained in the previous administration's records," GAO reported.

In a written response to GAO, U.S. Archivist Allen Weinstein said negotiations are under way with the Bush administration to implement a transfer mechanism for moving electronic records to NARA's system as quickly possible, noting plans to focus first on processing specific applications that are most likely to be subject of requests soon after the transition. He emphasized, however, the need for more information before developing mitigation plans.

"As with the transition at the end of the Clinton administration, the detailed migration plans will be developed when we have more in-depth technical knowledge of the systems to be migrated from the EOP," Weinstein said. "This will probably happen closer to November 2008."