National archives gets ready to taste first fruits of TechStat labor

The National Records and Archives Administration will modify its Electronic Records System for the first time since it went into the operations and maintenan...

This story is Part 4 of Federal News Radio’s special report Inside TechStat.

The National Records and Archives Administration will get its first chance this summer to really see how its new approach to modifying the Electronic Records Archive system is working.

Mike Wash, the NARA chief information officer, said ERA’s contractor, IBM, will deliver the first of several changes to the system based on a Technical Direction Letter (TDL).

“We are giving smaller, more defined packages for the vendor in case we need to change ERA based on the market or bugs or problems,” said Scott Stovall, ERA program director. “Under the operations and maintenance contract, IBM quotes back a firm fixed price contract based on the requirements we outline in the letter. We are able to move forward to adapt and correct by narrowly defining the scope in a short manageable delivery schedule.”

Stovall said NARA sent two TDLs to IBM and is developing two others.

The use of the TDL is one of the main lessons learned from the TechStat session NARA put ERA through in 2010.

Wash, who came to the agency in 2011 as its CIO, said the IT project review helped set ERA on a different course and toward success.

“Whether or not NARA would have achieved the desired outcome of ERA without TechStat is hard to say, but I think we wouldn’t have achieved it on the schedule that was established at TechStat if we hadn’t done TechStat,” Wash said. “TechStat effectively exposed what the situation was and established hard dates and metrics to meeting those dates. Progress wasn’t being made at a sufficient rate and TechStat put a stake in the ground for moving to operations and maintenance by the end of the fiscal year [2011].”

Wash said ERA now is accepting multiple terabytes of data monthly from all agencies.

In some ways, NARA used ERA as a test case for how it will manage projects in the future. The agency now is applying similar changes, which also included changing from a systems integrator model to a task order approach, across many of their programs.

“Scott and I are bringing more discipline to NARA project and portfolio management,” Wash said. “We are extending this in to a regular type of review session for all portfolio systems. We are keeping track against expected deliverables and costs. It’s a big change from what it was a few years ago.”

Wash said he’s used TechStat on a couple of occasions to ensure programs were meeting cost, schedule and performance goals.

“If you start to sense a project is getting into trouble or slipping into the weeds, we can call a special review and now we will do a deep dive and figure out what the problems are,” he said. “We can see if the resources are not appropriate or if there are contracting issues or if the technology isn’t ready, a number of things could emerge. It has been effective so far. We’ve been able to identify when project needs to go through that review in a timely manner.”

Wash said there is a growing acceptance of these reviews. He said the meetings have enhanced communication to figure out options to fix the problems.

“When you come into an environment where this type of discipline is not part of the norm, the first reaction almost always is, there’s too much investigation and too much control,” Wash said. “But as people realize it’s not going to be a reprimand type of thing, and more of, ‘let’s make sure we are properly applying our resources to do the right thing,’ people get more comfortable with the sessions. We are still in the learning stages that this is the norm and it does produce good results.”


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