Costs soaring for Archives' digital library, auditors say

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 4, 2011; 12:52 PM

The cost of building a digital system to gather, preserve and give the public access to the records of the federal government has ballooned as high as $1.4 billion, and the project could go as much as 41 percent over budget, government auditors plan to report Friday.

The Government Accountability Office blames the cost overruns and schedule delays on weak oversight and planning by the National Archives, which awarded a $317 million contract to Lockheed Martin Corp. six years ago to create a modern archive for electronic records.

The Archives' largest and most complex capital project ever has been plagued by problems, and it is still struggling to conduct effective oversight, auditors said.

The Archives "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," the GAO wrote in its report. A copy of the document was obtained ahead of its release by The Post.

The digital archive was identified last summer by the Office of Management and Budget as one of the government's most troubled information-technology investments. The Obama administration has tried to shore up or eliminate projects at risk of failure.

After that assessment, the budget office directed the Archives to cut its losses with the electronic archive, which is scheduled for a rollout this fall. But the system will do far less than was advertised. 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.

Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero, responding to a draft of the GAO report in November, 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.

The Archives is best known for the agency responsible for preservation of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and other historical documents. But it is also the repository of billions of pages of e-mails, memos and electronic files created by every branch of government. These, along with a growing number of audiovisual holdings, must be preserved for the public, by law, which has put the Archives under growing pressure to manage the digital avalanche.

Its solution was an archive that could store and preserve the records and allow them to be accessed online, regardless of which computer software created them. But cost increases, repeated schedule lapses, staff turnover at the Archives and Lockheed Martin and technological changes have pushed the project's cost to $567 million, the GAO said. When it's fully implemented, the price could hit $1.2 to $1.4 billion. Ferriero put the current cost at $282 million.

The shortcomings in oversight "call into question whether the federal government has an effective strategy for maintaining and making available to the public the tremendous amount of electronic records" produced by the government, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who requested the audit, said in a statement. He expressed disappointment that problems "that have been apparent for some time" remain unaddressed.

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