Scanning the Horizon: What business leaders in New Zealand can learn from the UK Post Office scandal

28 May 2024 01:25 PM By Ray

The UK Post Office Horizon scandal underscores the need for scrutiny in vendor relationships and a deeper understanding of technology's capabilities. 

If you watched the recent docudrama Mr Bates vs the Post Office, or the documentary that screened about the same time, you will have some awareness of the UK Post Office Horizon scandal.

Village Shop and Post Office - - 2901396

Neither of these shows gives the full impact of the story though.

If you haven’t heard about the scandal that has spanned most of the 21st century so far, and is being described as the greatest miscarriage of justice in a century, here is a very brief summary:

In the early 2000s, the UK Post Office rolled out a massive system named Horizon, to manage the accounts and point of sale in all of the post offices in the land. A proportion of these in smaller towns and villages are operated by “sub-postmasters”, which seem a lot like our own dairy owners who also operate post shops. A large number of these sub-postmasters encountered inexplicable errors in their accounts (which they were contractually liable for). 

The errors were eventually found to be due to faults in the Horizon system. For nearly 20 years neither UKPO nor the provider of the system would admit that such errors were possible and blamed the users of the system, many of whom were destroyed financially and even convicted for fraud.  

When this all came out, the reputations of senior managers at the Post Office were ruined and there is an ongoing - and very public enquiry - which may lead to even more serious consequences for those people.

Most of the story focuses on how badly the leadership of the Post Office behaved in aggressively prosecuting innocent people on a presumption of guilt and ruining hundreds of lives. I recommend the BBC’s podcast “The Great Post Office Trial” if you want to be simultaneously entertained and outraged.

I find it intriguing that very little commentary has been focused on the providers of the Horizon technology.

It defies belief that the provider allegedly told senior management of the Post Office that it was not possible for their staff to alter accounts. No system is, or can be, totally free of bugs and issues - there is always a need for some intervention by software engineers to resolve tricky unusual cases.

It’s hard to understand why everyone seemed to want to pretend that Horizon was different. As with all catastrophes, there were any number of opportunities to avoid this very slow-moving train wreck; but they were all passed by.

It won’t be a spoiler to say that you can’t trust the word of any supplier and for the most part, purchasers of IT systems know this.

In the first episode of our CIO Studio podcast, you’ll hear Dr Dwayne Crombie speak confidently on this subject - and by his account most senior executives know how to manage issues like this.

However, the behaviour of the senior executives at the UK Post Office tells a very different story. Either they were crooks themselves, which seems highly unlikely (whatever you think of public servants), or they blithely accepted the advice of representatives of a technology provider that defies even common sense.

Recently, we saw the owners of Whakaari / White Island in Court for health and safety failings related to the tragedy in 2019. If the accused had tried to argue that they had been advised that volcanos could never erupt and kill people, they would not have been taken seriously.

The assertions about Horizon sound no less ridiculous to me, and it seems that an argument which every IT provider in the land would know to be just as ridiculous, has just been used in the highest courts in the UK.

I hope that the days when people can plead ignorance of the most basic facts of life in a digital world are behind us, and I’m proud enough of NZ to believe that something similar could never happen here. 

Even so, the more I learn about the details of the Horizon scandal the more I would encourage leaders to ask really hard questions of their providers and be really skeptical of the answers they receive.

This is just one of the reasons why CIO Studio exists: to provide trusted expertise to reinforce the wisdom of business leaders and make sure they achieve the change they want with the minimum of risk.
Ray Delany
Founder, CIO Studio