But despite the controversy and opinions to the contrary, Thibodeau says NARA is prepared. In 1998, NARA began the process of building a system to preserve all types of electronic records created anywhere in the US government, enable online transactions and collaboration with other agencies over the life cycle of government records, and provide access to these records to the public and government officials. The system, scheduled to be built in five increments, is slated for completion in 2011. The first increment, just completed in June, provides functional archives to preserve electronic data in its original format, enables disposition of agreements and scheduling, and receives unclassified and sensitive data from federal agencies.
By December 5, the second increment that will handle the presidential records portion of the ERA system will be ready for the onslaught -- or as ready as it can be "when you're staring at 100TB of data bearing down on you," Thibodeau says. Even in this increment, however, the system will be used just by NARA staff and four pilot agencies, with public access slated for a later release.
The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) has questioned the ERA's readiness, especially since the project has endured some bumps along the way, including delays and cost overruns estimated at US$16.3 million. The life-cycle cost for the complete ERA system, scheduled to be completed in 2011, has been estimated at US$453 million, including development contract costs, program management, research and development, and program office support.
As recently as September, after studying the system's progress, the GAO urged NARA to create a mitigation plan in case it could not process the incoming records by January 20, 2009. In a report to the congressional committees (download PDF) , the GAO said, "If it cannot ingest the electronic records from the Bush administration in a way that supports the search, processing and retrieval of records immediately after the presidential transition, it will not be able to meet the requirements of the Congress, the former and incumbent presidents, and the courts for information in these records in a timely fashion."
Thibodeau says there is no noteworthy risk that the system would not be ready. If there are data formats the system can't ingest and index in a reasonable amount of time, he says, the short-term solution will be to recreate the applications used for those records and preserve and provide access for them that way.