A lack of accountability

After three months, the High Court battle between National Air Traffic Services (Nats) and its supplier EDS over the computer...

After three months, the High Court battle between National Air Traffic Services (Nats) and its supplier EDS over the computer systems for the Oceanic control centre has reached a settlement.

One of the more interesting elements to this case has been the evidence of Bill Semple, former chief executive of Nats, regarding comments he made to the House of Commons Transport Select Committee in 1999 about the progress of the Oceanic air traffic control system being built by EDS.

Semple gave the committee the impression that the system enjoyed the rudest of health. In reality, some Nats executives disagreed with Semple's assessment. Far from being "world-class", they thought the system might never be suitable for operational use. But Semple did not communicate any of the contractual difficulties to the committee.

Six months later Nats terminated its £50m contract with EDS.

Quizzed in the High Court about his optimistic report to the select committee, Semple said he had thought it inappropriate to wash Nats' "dirty linen" in public.

There is no doubt that Semple told the truth. Yet a gap remained between this truth and the committee members' understanding of it.

Select committees cannot provide the necessary independent and vigorous monitoring of public sector projects if they are not given the full facts. Yet again, we see a lack of accountability manifest in the communication of the progress of a public sector project to the very body that sits to provide an oversight of such schemes.

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