Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Letter to Mrs Gwyneth Dunwoody MP, Chairman of the Committee from Computer Weekly (ATC 32)

  Computer Weekly said in a front page article this week on Swanwick that it would be good project management practice to conduct an independent assessment of progress whenever a major project runs into difficulties.

  We are aware that NATS does not believe there is justification for an independent review. We are also aware of their statement that an independent assessment could delay the operational date of Swanwick by perhaps a year. We do not agree.

  We are told by independent IT specialists that, given unfettered access to memoranda, correspondence between suppliers and NATS, and minutes of steering group meetings, an on-site assessment of overall progress on the project could be completed by a single consultant within a period of three weeks. We can supply to the Committee names of expert witnesses who are familiar with the risks and issues involved with the management of complex IT systems, and who would be prepared to undertake this work.

  It is our experience that one of the most common causes of computer-related disasters in the public sector is the inability of project teams to pass bad news up and down the chains of command. Parliament often discovers details of computer disasters only years after the event. Sometimes it is never told, i.e., the DSS's £25 million ASSIST project.

  Another common cause of project failures is a lack of direct involvement of end-users until after the system has been delivered. This would appear to have happened at Swanwick. In this case the end-users are air traffic controllers.

  In the USA, the General Accounting Office's often reviews departmental plans before contracts are signed. There is no such regulatory system in the UK. However an independent assessment at this stage of Swanwick's systems would at least put into a wider context the evidence given to the committee by Mr Semple.

  For example we are told by NATS that there is only about 5 per cent of the original number of bugs in the system. Independent specialists tell us that fixing this 5 per cent could take 95 per cent of the total time available to the project team to resolve all outstanding IT issues.

  Given the delays to the operational opening of Swanwick, the continuing problems with the software bugs and the year-2000 issues, the importance of the project to the relief of congestion, and the lack of facts surrounding the success or otherwise of the computer systems at Swanwick, we believe it would be prudent to commission an assessment. We would lend our full support for such an assessment.

Tony Collins

Executive Editor

13 February 1998

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