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Lessons from the Post Office Horizon IT scandal: trust is as important as tech

By Danny Bluestone | Founder & CEO

Cyber-Duck

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May 3, 2022 | 7 min read

As victims give evidence at the public inquiry into one of the UK’s most widespread miscarriages of justice, Danny Bluestone, founder and chief exec of digital transformation agency Cyber-Duck, looks into what we can learn from the Post Office IT scandal.

The shocking scale of the Post Office scandal, the UK’s most widespread miscarriage of justice, is only now coming to wider public awareness. A recent BBC Panorama documentary and media coverage coincided with victims’ harrowing evidence at the ongoing public inquiry. The scandal saw over 700 former Post Office sub-postmasters and mistresses wrongfully convicted between 2000 and 2015 for false accounting and theft, after bugs in Fujitsu’s Horizon retail transactions and accounting software falsely showed shortfalls of cash at their branches.

A post box

Cyber-Duck's Danny Bluestone on lessons for digital from the Post Office scandal

The Post Office and Fujitsu are being investigated for potential failures and cover-up. Hundreds of people were jailed or went bankrupt through fines or desperately trying to make up system shortfalls with their own money. Reputations and health were ruined, with many pleading guilty to avoid the threat of prison. There were suicides.

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This scandal makes one thing abundantly clear: when the real-world impacts of software errors can be so grave, ensuring a culture of accountability, transparency and continuous improvement in digital transformation projects is an absolute must.

Red flags raised, yet ignored

Problems started almost immediately in 1999 when the Post Office replaced its legacy systems with Fujitsu’s centralized Horizon system. Welsh sub-postmaster turned relentless campaigner Alan Bates spotted and reported issues almost immediately in early 2000. Finding erroneous duplicate transactions, causing ‘missing’ cash to show up, some due to internet connections dropping out and transactions resent, others seemingly without cause.

After fruitlessly pursuing the issue with the Post Office, Bates was sacked, raising it with Computer Weekly in 2004, which published a full in-depth investigation into Horizon in 2009. In the meantime, the Post Office pursued convictions for these non-existent ‘crimes’ from 2000, continuing for well over a decade. Despite reports by Computer Weekly, then Private Eye and others, both organizations maintained there were no errors with the software – a claim that was later disproved. Investigations and court cases leading to the convictions were overturned as unsafe.

‘Blinded’ by science; compounded by culture

Software errors happen. No system or algorithm is perfect. But, when a product or service is highly technical, with its end users unable to fully understand what’s happening in practice, problems can go undetected and be concealed, deliberately or otherwise.

It’s not just software. We can look to the Theranos medical testing scandal and the sub-prime mortgage product crisis for other examples of where people responsible for or affected by risk simply couldn’t get behind the data or computer models presented to them by so-called technical whizzes.

Organizational culture and a lack of good values can compound this asymmetric information issue. Uber are now infamous for exacerbating (genuine) technical errors with poor business practice.

Shared language and standards are essential

In digital transformation projects, there will always be highly complex technical solutions. There must be a way to communicate effectively to achieve full transparency. To establish a shared language, so that all stakeholders understand what’s going right (or wrong) and fix it before it snowballs into a crisis.

This requires having the right people in the room for meetings in multifunctional teams. The stakes are too high to have clients, developers, marketers, project managers, and UX designers all siloed from each other (it’s also inefficient and uneconomic). Bringing them together ensures that all challenges and non-conformities, business or technical, can be identified quickly and managed openly in mostly plain language, while helping to avoid blame culture.

Establishing standards on how digital projects are carried out by both clients and suppliers is essential. After numerous large-scale digital transformation project failures (Horizon being just one), the UK Government Digital Service Standard is now a great example of laying out how things can be done, requiring user-centered principles and a service design approach; multifunctional teams; inclusion; agile methodology; and a focus on continuous improvement.

Digital transformation needs auditable processes

Standards are great in theory, but it’s the practice that matters. If something does go wrong, it must be quickly identified and rectified. This means having project processes that ensure transparency, hold everyone accountable, empower people to engage with, and deliver, success and constant improvement. We use accreditations like the ISO 9001 Quality Management System for all our operations to achieve this. It focuses on all areas of project excellence, including customer satisfaction and team wellbeing, and critically provides proactive risk management, corrective and preventative action logs and audit trails, delivering continual improvement based on real analysis and results.

Long-term ethical partnerships (not tech) create success

At present, we can only surmise what went on behind closed doors at the Post Office and Fujitisu during the Horizon scandal years. But we can know that the organizations weren’t working together to identify and solve problems. And it was the sub-postmasters and mistresses who paid a devastating price.

As we continue to roll out new, essential digital services that affect every part of our lives – from our medical care and utilities to education – all of us working in digital must work in partnership to ensure the highest possible ethical standards and quality in everything we do. That is as important, if not more important, than bleeding-edge tech. The software and products we build can’t care about their end-users. That’s our job.

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Established in 2005, Cyber-Duck is a leading digital agency that works with exciting startups and global brands such as Cancer Research Technology, The European Commission and Arsenal FC. As a full service digital agency, Cyber-Duck offers creative, technical and marketing services all under one roof. The company blends an ISO-accredited user-centred design process with lean and agile management principles, drawing on investment in creative R&D.

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