by Kim S. Nash

Project Management Nightmare: Records from the Bush Administration

May 15, 20084 mins

When US presidents leave office, they leave behind pounds and pounds of paper and bytes and bytes of electronic records—all sorts of data reflecting the activities, and inactivity, of their leadership of this great nation of ours.

What happens to all that stuff, which is the property of the American people? Presidential libraries get copies of some material. But most of it goes to the National Archives and Records Administration, or NARA, a federal agency that keeps government documents.

(I say “most of it” because some material somehow gets lost. The most recent high-profile example being how the Bush Administration can’t account for missing-yet-crucial e-mail related to the leaked identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame. Lost e-mail just happens, doesn’t it. Darndest thing.)

Anyway, NARA safeguards and preserves government records in the name of safeguarding and preserving democracy itself, as the agency says on its Web site. And we’re all supposed to be able to search and access these records.

What’s really curling my liver is the big mess in which NARA finds itself as it tries to put in an electronic records archive system, or ERA, to manage all those important government documents and data. The plan was to have that big ERA in place in time to receive Bush’s records when the man hands over the keys to the White House in January 2009.

Classic project management problems now plague ERA. And the problems will, of course, cost millions dollars, according to a May 14 report (PDF) from the Government Accountability Office.

NARA has been working since 2001 on ERA. Seven years and it isn’t done yet. The first phase isn’t even done yet and when it is, it’ll be $8 million to $12 million over budget, GAO says. Just that phase.

Among the aggravating details, NARA and Lockheed Martin, the contractor NARA hired, decided to build most of the system from scratch. They have their reasons, but you gotta know that doing so stacks the odds against you at the start. Then Lockheed originally provided programmers without the necessary experience, the GAO says, causing project delays. Lockheed had to replace them with more experienced programmers.

The glacial pace of progress—and you may surmise I use the word “progress” quite generously—makes me want to pull my hair out:

* 2001 to 2003: Two years to go from developing records management policies to issuing a request for proposal to design the ERA.

* December 2003 to August 2004: Another eight months to award contracts to two vendors to design the system.

* August 2004 to September 2005: Another year to choose one of the two to build it; Lockheed got a contract that runs from 2006 to 2012 valued at, the GAO says, $317 million.

A scaled-back version of the first phase of the five-phase project is on track for delivery at least two months late, the GAO says. And because it will be late, and lack certain capabilities (such as the ability to manage access to classified material), NARA and Lockheed have had to come up with a Plan B for receiving Bush’s records.

Federal regulations mandate that material from an outgoing president must be available to Congress, the former and incumbent president and the courts after the January transition.

And what is that Plan B?

Buying off-the-shelf software for a separate “executive office of the president,” or EOP, system just for Bush’s stuff.

This off-the-shelf system, which still will require lots of customization, is a different architecture from the overall ERA. That means at some point, it will have to be migrated at some future point “in the long term,” the GAO notes. NARA has so far spent $13 million on this interim system.

But EOP itself is hitting snags. Lockheed and NARA haven’t been able to finalize a contract because they can’t accurately scope out the work because, according to NARA, the Bush Administration hasn’t come across with full details about the types and volume of data it plans to turn over come January. Officials have said they have 32 different systems but haven’t outlined data types or formats other than to say e-mail and images will be included, NARA told the GAO.

That leaves NARA to estimate. Clinton sent over 2TB of data when he left office, which took 400 days to process. NARA expects the Bushies to turn over 100TB of information.

(If they can find it, I presume.)

Stay tuned—I will be following this project as they hurry to get it done.