Posted by: Alper MERMER Comments: 0

When Greed Trumps Quality: Part-2, Post Office

Hello again, everyone. In my previous article, we explored how compromising quality can lead to problems through the Boeing example. In this follow-up piece, just like before, we will talk about a critical incident. This time, our example is quite striking as it involves not just a single event, but a nearly 20-year-long quality issue. After two decades of development, testing, deployment, and user experience processes, the Post Office, one of the UK’s most respected institutions, had to partially acknowledge its mistakes. Consequently, it faced legal battles and had to pay significant compensations to the employees who suffered from these errors.

For those unaware of the incident, here’s a brief summary: Fujitsu made an agreement with the Post Office to implement a software called Horizon. This software, widely used across the post office for daily operations, unfortunately exhibited many quality flaws leading to errors. These errors were either overlooked or not properly resolved when detected. What happened to the postal workers using this software? They ended up dealing with unjust lawsuits and compensations; some lost their lives, jobs, or savings, causing a significant uproar across the country.

Let’s examine what happened in this situation chronologically together.

  • 1999: The Horizon IT system begins rollout in UK Post Office branches.

  • 2000: Alan Bates reports issues with the Horizon system.

  • 2003: Bates’ contract is terminated after disputing liability for account shortfalls in Llandudno, North Wales.

  • 2004: Lee Castleton faces a £25,000 shortfall in Bridlington, East Yorkshire, and is bankrupt after losing a legal battle with the Post Office.

  • 2009: “Computer Weekly” exposes the subpostmasters’ fight for justice; the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance forms.

  • 2010: Seema Misra, a pregnant subpostmaster in West Byfleet, Surrey, is jailed over a £74,000 theft accusation.

  • 2015: Post Office head Paula Vennells denies wrongful convictions to a business committee; the Post Office stops subpostmaster prosecutions.

  • 2017: 555 subpostmasters initiate legal action against the Post Office.

  • 2019: The High Court finds Horizon software flawed, contributing to account shortfalls. The Post Office agrees to a £58 million settlement with the 555 subpostmasters; Vennells is awarded a CBE.

  • 2020: The Post Office does not contest 44 subpostmasters’ appeals.

  • 2021: An inquiry into Horizon’s failings begins; 39 crown court convictions are overturned.

  • 2023: The government offers £600,000 in compensation to each wrongly convicted subpostmaster.

The Post Office scandal, primarily involving the flawed Horizon IT system, showcases significant errors in software development, management, and oversight that led to wrongful convictions and severe personal consequences for many subpostmasters. Here are the key mistakes related to software quality that facilitated this scandal:

  1. Inadequate Testing and Quality Assurance: The Horizon system was rolled out without thorough testing to ensure its reliability and accuracy in processing transactions. This lack of rigorous testing led to undetected bugs and errors that caused discrepancies in accounting data.

  2. Ignoring User Reports and Feedback: Subpostmasters began reporting issues soon after the system’s deployment. However, these reports were largely dismissed by the Post Office and Fujitsu, the system developer. The failure to address and investigate these reports allowed the software problems to persist and escalate.

  3. Deficient Error Handling and System Monitoring: The system lacked robust mechanisms for detecting and correcting errors autonomously. There was also inadequate monitoring to promptly identify and address issues as they arose, which is crucial in a system handling financial transactions.

  4. Lack of Transparency and Accountability: The Post Office did not provide clear and accessible channels for users to report problems, nor was there transparency in how reported issues were handled. This opacity prevented stakeholders from understanding the scope and impact of the problems.

  5. Insufficient User Training and Support: Subpostmasters received inadequate training on the new system. This lack of support, coupled with the system’s complexity, made it difficult for users to identify whether issues were due to user errors or system flaws.

  6. Resistance to External Scrutiny: The Post Office resisted external scrutiny and maintained a defensive stance even when presented with evidence of the system’s failures. This resistance to external review and the initial refusal to halt prosecutions contributed to the perpetuation of the issue.

Sounds incredible, doesn’t it? As you read from top to bottom, it becomes apparent not only how software errors can be overlooked, but also how, when these errors are discovered or the system fails, managers and accountable individuals might engage in various behaviors to protect their own interests.

At this point, it becomes clear that quality is something much greater than just testing. It is crucial for an institution, a project, a team, indeed every product, to be easily traceable, manageable, and most importantly, accountable.

The fundamental goal in all our software processes is to produce not just what is required, but software that generates value and benefits. From this perspective, seeing quality merely as a test, a product output, or the result of a phase is a significant error. Here, enhancing quality and ensuring that not only the final product but also the process achieves the highest level of quality is something professionals like us, the whole team, should aspire to do. From the beginning of the process— the ideation phase, through the analysis and requirements determination stages, to the development process, and afterward, monitoring in the real environment where the product is used—we impact not just our product and the profits we earn, but also the lives of countless people touched by our products. With this responsibility in mind, I wish you numerous successful endeavors as you invest rightly in quality and quality processes, benefiting not only yourselves but also your customers and humanity at large.

Further reading on The Post Office scandal and the timeline of events read more here and here.