Findings from the National Air Traffic Services report speak volumes about difficult IT projects

The report by auditor Arthur D Little on a project to deliver new air traffic control systems at Swanwick in Hampshire showed the...

The report by auditor Arthur D Little on a project to deliver new air traffic control systems at Swanwick in Hampshire showed the value of timely independent oversight.  

Today its findings make salutary reading for any senior IT professional engaged in a major high-risk project. 

The Swanwick audit was commissioned after the opening of the £600m New En Route Centre (Nerc) at Swanwick had been delayed for several years because the software was not ready.  

National Air Traffic Services (Nats), which owned and managed Swanwick, fought against the idea of an independent audit, but went on to enact many of its recommendations.  

The report was direct and did not avoid mentioning individuals. For example, it criticised a former chief executive who "maintained a high degree of personal involvement in the management of the New En Route Centre project... liaising in many cases directly with the project director and bypassing operational and engineering managers who held line accountability." 

It highlighted the fact that information given to the board of Nats about the project seemed "very mild when compared with the reality of the true risks for the New En Route Centre systems". 

  • "The underlying reason for the New En Route Centre delays was not "weak" project management - on the contrary, the senior Nerc personnel who ran the project were experienced, strong project managers hired in from outside. It could be argued that their 'firmness' in isolating the project from the influence of Nats' wider operations was itself one of the major contributors to the problems." 
  • There was a "lack of respect on the part of the [former] CEO for the ability of the board to provide worthwhile judgements about Nerc and on how issues might be resolved. Often, by the time the board was made aware of a problem with Nerc or the need to make an important decision, there were few real options left open to the board members, apart from continuing with the project as already laid out." 
  • "The fact that the CEO chaired these meetings and also felt a very high level of commitment to the success of the Nerc project... very likely inhibited more open discussion at such meetings on project problems and possible 'O' date slippage. This in turn stifled debate and helped reduce the effectiveness of the review meetings." 
  • "[There were] poor internal communications and inhibition of open debate at review committee and board levels; inadequate exercising of control and reporting powers at review committee and board levels."   
  • "The Nerc project team felt it was their responsibility to demonstrate that everything was under control and to justify why their proposed programme of work for the next phase should be adopted by Nats." 
  • "There is evidence that the information presented to the review boards hindered their ability to do their job effectively. From studying many of the reports presented to the review boards, it is clear the quantity of material presented was copious... What is noticeable is that it is difficult to extract key messages from what was presented." 
  • "The whole culture and environment within which reviews were held was a major contributor to weakness in picking up on major issues... The approach adopted was non-investigative, there was an unwillingness to face up to and discuss bad news, and a style which inhibited an open and frank discussion of difficult problems." 
  • "The Nerc project director and the CEO were both keen to maintain a firm hand on the project and 'get on with the job', avoiding needless interventions from Nats' operations and senior management. They perceived that given the relative inexperience of the rest of Nats with projects of this size, further intervention from them would only take additional time and effort, and risk adding further to design changes without any corresponding benefits." 
  • "Nats board meetings are held monthly. It is evident from the meeting reports that a lot of material, often in great detail, was presented at these meetings. It is also evident from interviews that board members felt they received little information enabling them to make informed decisions and carry out their governance duties." 
  • "Nats failed to understand the importance of public relations when reporting the Nerc system project to the [Department of Transport]. The quarterly reports forwarded by Nats to the department were very bland and did not contain information about project management issues.  "Also, Nats did not alert the department to problems until they were upon them, leaving the department with very little real choice on what should be done.  
  • "A possible reason for this lack of openness was the concern within Nats that if the department were made aware of difficult problems on Nerc which could lead to significant delays to the 'O' date and extra project costs, the department would have to be seen to be taking firm action to intervene. Intervention was clearly seen as unattractive by Nats."

How an independent review could make the difference between success and failure >>

This was last published in March 2005

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