Air Traffic Control:

System Management Capabilities Improved, but More Can Be Done to Institutionalize Improvements

GAO-04-901: Published: Aug 20, 2004. Publicly Released: Sep 20, 2004.

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Since 1981, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been working to modernize its aging air traffic control (ATC) system. Individual projects have suffered cost increases, schedule delays, and performance shortfalls of large proportions, leading GAO to designate the program a high-risk information technology initiative in 1995. Because the program remains a high risk initiative, GAO was requested to assess FAA's progress in several information technology management areas. This report, one in a series responding to that request, has two objectives: (1) to evaluate FAA's capabilities for developing and acquiring software and systems on its ATC modernization program and (2) to assess the actions FAA has under way to improve these capabilities.

FAA has made progress in improving its capabilities for acquiring software-intensive systems, but some areas still need improvement. GAO had previously reported in 1997 that FAA's processes for acquiring software were ad hoc and sometimes chaotic. Focusing on four mission critical air traffic projects, GAO's current review assessed system and software management practices in numerous key areas such as project planning, risk management, and requirements development. GAO found that these projects were generally performing most of the desired practices: of the 900 individual practices evaluated, 83 percent were largely or fully implemented. The projects were generally strong in several areas such as project planning, requirements management, and identifying technical solutions. However, there were recurring weaknesses in the areas of measurement and analysis, quality assurance, and verification. These weaknesses hinder FAA from consistently and effectively managing its mission critical systems and increase the risk of cost overruns, schedule delays, and performance shortfalls. To improve its software and system management capabilities, FAA has undertaken a rigorous process improvement initiative. In response to earlier GAO recommendations, in 1999, FAA established a centralized process improvement office, which has worked to help FAA organizations and projects to improve processes through the use of a standard model, the integrated Capability Maturity Model. This model, which is a broad model that integrates multiple maturity models, is used to assess the maturity of FAA's software and systems capabilities. The projects that have adopted the model have demonstrated growth in the maturity of their processes, and more and more projects have adopted the model. However, the agency does not require the use of this process improvement method. To date, less than half of FAA's major ATC projects have used this method, and the recurring weaknesses we identified in our project-specific evaluations are due in part to the choices these projects were given in deciding whether to and how to adopt this process improvement initiative. Further, as a result of reorganizing its ATC organizations to a performance-based organization, FAA is reconsidering prior policies, and it is not yet clear that process improvement will continue to be a priority. Without a strong senior-level commitment to process improvement and a consistent, institutionalized approach to implementing and evaluating it, FAA cannot ensure that key projects will continue to improve systems acquisition and development capabilities. As a result, FAA will continue to risk the project management problems--including cost overruns, schedule delays, and performance shortfalls--that have plagued past acquisitions.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FAA concurred with this recommendation and the Administrator, in conjunction with the Chief Information Officer(CIO) and other executives from the air traffic organization, committed to a plan for institutionalizing process improvements across the air traffic organization. The plan includes assessing compliance with process improvement initiatives and specifies measurable goals and timeframes.

    Recommendation: Given the importance of software-intensive systems to FAA's air traffic control modernization program, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to ensure that the Chief Information Officer's process improvement office, in consultation with the Air Traffic Organization, develop a strategy for overseeing all air traffic projects' progress to successive levels of maturity; this strategy should specify measurable goals and time frames.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FAA concurred with this recommendation and established a plan for implementing process improvement initiatives on major system acquisition efforts throughout the air traffic organization. The plan identifies core process areas for improvement, plans for assessing compliance, measurable goals, and timeframes.

    Recommendation: Given the importance of software-intensive systems to FAA's air traffic control modernization program, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to ensure that the new Air Traffic Organization establish a plan for implementing iCMM or equivalent process improvement initiatives throughout the organization. This plan should specify a core set of process areas for all projects, clear criteria for when appraisals are warranted, and measurable goals and time frames.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FAA agreed with GAO's recommendation and has implemented it. After a review of existing policies, FAA's ATO organization affirmed the agency's acquisition management system policy, which states that project teams should use a process improvements model, such as the iCMM. FAA also revised its investment review board processes to require that projects have process improvement activities in place before being approved for funding.

    Recommendation: Given the importance of software-intensive systems to FAA's air traffic control modernization program, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to ensure that the new Air Traffic Organization establish a policy requiring organizations and project teams to implement iCMM or equivalent process improvement initiatives.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FAA concurred with this recommendation and took action to implement the practices that we had identified as not implemented or partially implemented. GAO reassessed the systems and found that all of the practices that were identified as not implemented or partially implemented have now been implemented.

    Recommendation: Given the importance of software-intensive systems to FAA's air traffic control modernization program, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to ensure that the four projects that we appraised take action to fully implement the practices that we identified as not implemented or partially implemented.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FAA program officials concurred with this recommendation and reported that they have worked with FAA's investment review board (called the Joint Resources Council) to include additional language in the Final Investment Decision Briefing Template. The template states that the Joint Resource Council will approve only those investments that have process improvement plans in place. The FAA Acquisition Management System policy requires projects to undergo a Final Investment Decision by the Joint Resources Council before funding is released.

    Recommendation: Given the importance of software-intensive systems to FAA's air traffic control modernization program, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to ensure that to enforce process improvement initiatives, FAA investment decision makers take a project's capability level in core process areas into consideration before approving new investments in the project.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

 

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