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Eye-Watering IT Failures (and their consequences)

The Horizon / British Post Office Computer Scandal - gas lighting of the highest order

This blog deviates a bit from my usual ‘opinion piece’ format as I’ve recently been influenced by the Horizon / British Post Office computer scandal that destroyed many lives and livelihoods in the UK due to faulty software created and provided by Fujitsu. The software was used for accounting purposes by thousands of subpostmasters across Britain and is recognised as one of the most widespread miscarriages of justice in British history.

There is a huge amount of detailed information available on the Wikipedia site regarding this – excerpt below – and there’s an excellent four-part television drama, Mr Bates vs the Post Office which was broadcast in the UK in January 2024 (available on TVNZ+ currently) which is definitely worth viewing.

But the point I’d like to make is the damage this unmitigated disaster caused to so many lives, by a complete lack of honesty, ethics, integrity and accountability. It’s the stuff that nightmares are made of for ordinary people going about their business. 

To make matters worse, when any of the affected subpostmasters contacted the Horizon Support for help they were fobbed off with “no-one else has experienced this” and “you’re the only one” which resulted in even more stress for them. This action would have to be a quintessential example of ‘gas lighting’ if ever there was one.

What were Fujitsu and the British Post Office thinking of to respond in such a calculated and callous way? A great example of corporate rot for both organisations – will they ever be trusted again? 

From Wikipedia…

Between 1999 and 2015, over 900 subpostmasters were convicted of theft, fraud and false accounting based on faulty Horizon data, with about 700 of these prosecutions carried out by the Post Office. Other subpostmasters were prosecuted but not convicted, forced to cover Horizon shortfalls with their own money, or had their contracts terminated. The court cases, criminal convictions, imprisonments, loss of livelihoods and homes, debts and bankruptcies, took a heavy toll on the victims and their families, leading to stress, illness, family breakdown, and at least four suicides.

Although many subpostmasters had reported problems with the new software, the Post Office insisted that Horizon was robust and failed to disclose its knowledge of faults in the system while securing convictions. In 2009, Computer Weekly broke the story about problems with Horizon, and subpostmaster Alan Bates launched the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA). In 2012, following pressure from campaigners and Members of Parliament, the Post Office appointed forensic accountants from the firm Second Sight to conduct an investigation into Horizon. Second Sight concluded that Horizon contained faults that could result in accounting discrepancies, but the Post Office said that there were no systemic problems with the software.

In 2017, 555 subpostmasters led by Bates brought a group action in the High Court against the Post Office. After the judge ruled in 2019 that the subpostmasters' contracts with the Post Office were unfair and that Horizon "contained bugs, errors and defects", the case was settled out of court for £58 million, which left the claimants with about £12 million after legal costs. The government later agreed to supplement their awards. The judge's rulings in the case paved the way for subpostmasters to challenge their convictions in the courts and led in 2020 to the government establishing an independent inquiry into the scandal. The Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry was converted into a statutory public inquiry in 2021.

Courts began to quash convictions from December 2020. By February 2024, 100 of the subpostmasters' convictions had been overturned in court. In January 2024 plans for a blanket exoneration were announced by the government and in March 2024 the Post Office (Horizon System) Offences Bill was introduced into parliament. Those wrongfully convicted became eligible for compensation from the Post Office, as did more than 2,750 subpostmasters who had been affected by the scandal but had not been convicted. By January 2024, the Post Office had paid out £153 million to claimants, with 64% of all those affected by the scandal having received full and final compensation.

A four-part television drama, Mr Bates vs the Post Office, was broadcast on ITV in January 2024, after which the scandal became a major news story and political issue. The same month, the government said it would introduce legislation to exonerate wrongly convicted subpostmasters. As of January 2024, most of those wrongly convicted are still waiting to have their convictions overturned, the public inquiry is ongoing, and the Metropolitan Police is investigating individuals from the Post Office and its software provider, Fujitsu. In January 2024, claims emerged that a previous Post Office accounting system known as Capture, used by some post offices in the 1990s, had caused similar problems to those caused by Horizon.

Source: Wikipedia - British Post Office scandal.

Why let it get to this?

Perhaps more importantly, why didn’t Fujitsu and the Post Office just fix the problems? Maybe it had something to do with the fact that the software wasn’t ‘fit for purpose’ in the first place? After all, it had come about as a software created for a failed project.

More from Wikipedia

Conceived in 1996 as one of the first private finance initiative (PFI) contracts, between the Post Office and the Benefits Agency on the one hand and computer company ICL on the other, the Horizon IT system had an unpromising start. It had been set up to create a swipe card system for payment of pensions and benefits from Post Office branch counters. When, in May 1999, the plug was finally pulled on what the Commons public accounts committee called 'one of the biggest IT failures in the public sector', taxpayers had lost around £700m. Something had to be salvaged, however. So, against the better judgement of its IT specialists, the Post Office decided to use the system to transform its paper-based branch accounting into an electronic system covering the full range of Post Office services. The new Horizon project became the largest non-military IT contract in Europe.

We’re not perfect

New Zealand has had its share of government-funded failed IT projects over the years and doesn’t seem to have learned a lot from their experiences. Two recent examples come to mind … 

1. Project Name: The National Property and Land Information System (NaPALIS)

Project owner/s: Dept of Conservation (DoC) & Land information NZ (LINZ)
Main issues: massive budget overruns & a failure to deliver as intended
Provider: Australian IT company, ICS (Tasmania)
More info here: New Zealand Herald: Another govt IT project failure - this time at DoC

2. Project Name: Te Ara Manaaki programme – Births, deaths & marriages project

Project Owner: Department of Internal Affairs (DIA)
Main issues: Multiple
Provider: Australian company DWS Group
More Info here: Radio New Zealand: Government births, deaths and marriages IT project halted

'Once bitten; twice shy’ doesn’t apply to DIA

This isn’t the first big failure that DIA has had. An upgrade of their Intelligence Systems has also failed. One part of the project to create an overarching intelligence system between 2013 and running through to 2020 eventually worked, but another part was abandoned, partially through the department not spelling out what was needed.

Archives NZ (comes within DIA’s jurisdiction) has also experienced a raft of shortcomings which were pinpointed in an IT overhaul that hugely disrupted public access to more than six million records. The problems seem to be around a new $4 million search tool which caused shutdowns and breaches throughout 2022. The provider in this case was Swedish supplier, Axiell.

And there have been several other high-profile historical ones too.

At least the NZ IT failures haven’t personally destroyed the lives of innocent people as the Horizon one has, and it seems that there haven’t been any cover-ups, which is reassuring.

Poor vetting and selection aren’t just employment problems

The common theme in all of these situations seems to be down to poor vetting and selection of providers, who coincidentally all seem to be overseas-owned companies (what’s wrong with using local NZ experts – we have plenty of talent here to choose from), questionable project management and a lack of financial intelligence and monitoring. Sadly, it’s the NZ tax payers who end up footing the bill and overruns, and experience the lengthy delays while the government departments’ incompetence seems to go unchallenged.

Transparency and Accountability are vital

As has happened in many high-profile fiascos, the takeaway has to be about transparency – at every stage of any project, from conception to delivery, someone needs to be accountable for the failures. In the case of the Horizon / British Post Office Scandal, huge cover-ups and snow-jobs were undertaken from the top down, and it still seems to be ‘one-step-forward and two-steps-backward’ for the subpostmasters to clear their names and receive the compensation they deserve.

Sadly, at the end of the day, for the subpostmasters, it was down to a massive failure of integrity by the people they should have been able to trust. A failure of epic proportions which could ultimately see the end of the British Post Office.


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