Prolonging a failing IT project

Rather than pull the plug on a failing IT project the US National Security Agency tried for six years to save its “Trailblazer” scheme.

It transferred management responsibility to different teams whose members tweaked the design and made it more complicated. It was passed around among agency and contract personnel until, $1.2 billion later, it still didn’t work.


Trailblazer was intended to mine the internet and telecommunications for bits of data related to terrorism. It was supposed to connect the dots between various information sources, such as e-mail, mobile phone calls and instant messages.

This story of the failure came to light through the dogged reporting of The Baltimore Sun’s Siobhan Gorman.

One clear message is that large and complex schemes should be challenged by regular independent assessments – and the results published so that a spotlight can be thrown on anyone who has a vested interest in keeping alive a doomed project.

Perhaps this is one reason UK ministers enjoy a blanket ban on the disclosure of gateway reviews which are independent assessments of IT-based projects at various stages in their lifecycle. Non disclosure of gateway reviews minimises the likelihood of robust evidence coming into the public domain that exposes a failing scheme.

An excellent article on the failure of the Trailblazer scheme is here

Thank you to Brian Randell of the NHS 23 for drawing our attention to the article. Brian and 22 other academics are campaigning for an independent published review of the NHS’s £12.4bn National Programme for IT.

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