GAO Takes FAA To Task on Program Management Practices
At the FAA, some say, program management has traditionally been an oxymoron. Several past and current programs attest to that assessment, one of them being NextGen’s En Route Advanced Modernization (Eram) system, which faces significant delays and cost overruns. Delivery of that system’s upgrade could now slip from 2010 to 2016, and its costs go from $2.15 billion to $2.65 billion.
Who keeps an eye on things to prevent such delays and overruns? The obvious answer is the FAA itself, through its individual program managers and its senior management. And when things start to get out of hand, the Congressionally appointed Government Accountability Office (GAO) watchdog steps in. But no one gets fired, or demoted, although individuals can be transferred to less demanding assignments. Several years ago the FAA and sympathetic legislators successfully pleaded that the agency’s quasi-commercial business model necessitated that it be allowed to operate on a fairly loose leash, compared with the other, more tightly controlled, government agencies. But the other side of that coin is that while the GAO’s auditors probably routinely tear their hair over questionable FAA program problems and decisions, they appear to be allowed only to be sympathetic when told of the reasons behind them.
Hence, no heads are likely to roll following the GAO’s February report that both the standard terminal automation replacement system (Stars, a Tracon display system) and Waas are “way over cost and severely behind time.” The completed Stars started in 1996, and was estimated then to cost $940 million; the total cost by 2007 was more than $2 billion. Waas started in 1998 under a $1 billion estimate; it is estimated it will have cost $3 billion by the time it is completed next year. So Stars performed better than Waas, right?
Actually, no. Waas has seen continually expanding development into new applications not considered feasible at the beginning, such as today’s Category 1 LPVs and, ahead, two-frequency operation for even better performance. Stars, unhappily, went into a descending spiral (one hesitates to say death spiral) as its costs escalated and its delivered units shrank, to 47 from the originally contracted 172. In fact, across the 30 NextGen programs the GAO reviewed, 11 had combined cost increases of $4.2 billion, equivalent to 60 percent of all programs, while 15 had delays between four and 14 years.
This appeared to be the last straw for the GAO, which devoted 90 pages of its 150-page report to setting out in exhaustive detail exactly what it would require from the FAA in the future, from initial program concept to final user acceptance, delivery and service support, and in fine and well justified steps along the way. This would include currently unheard of things such as requiring the FAA to clearly explain the total rationale behind the concept and to accurately demonstrate its cost and operational benefits versus those of closely investigated alternative approaches, including those identified by independent specialists from other agencies such as the DOD, or even from nongovernment sources. This would also avoid situations such as that unofficially reported of NextGen’s system wide information management (Swim) program, which at its conception appeared to be a natural vehicle for the transfer of knowledge and experience from the DOD, long recognized as the government’s leader in that discipline. In the event, however, the FAA appears to be going its own way without close DOD assistance.
The GAO’s new, and much more demanding, contract approach introduces much higher monitoring and accountability levels that extend throughout a program’s design, development, testing, production, acceptance, ongoing service performance, reliability and service support. In turn, it should enable a full return to true program management at the FAA and end the budgetary and delivery delays that have been almost endemic in agency programs. In other words, no more Stars or Eram debacles.
The agency’s reauthorization act calls for the appointment of a chief NextGen officer, whose responsibilities will presumably include implementing these new standards. It will be an uphill, but vitally needed task.