The Horizon scandal: Some lessons learned from the Post Office software debacle

28th of May 2024

We’ve all heard the news about the Post Office scandal and to surmise the story for the purposes of this article, flawed software led to wrongful convictions. A stark reminder of the profound impact software can have on lives and businesses both positive and negative.

As Executive Chairman and Managing Director of Shoothill for 18 years, a provider of business-focused custom software solutions for nearly 18 years, I’ve worked with Fujitsu and so like many of us – have closely followed this story with great interest.  Our software is vital to our customer’s business processes, and often it’s entirely responsible for their revenue generation. We hold massive responsibilities to our customers and so I believe there are certain lessons that we must take from this scandal as this story highlights vital truths in our industry.

Don’t let yourself get confused

To begin with, businesses shouldn’t let themselves be bamboozled by technology, or confused by the language used in software. For businesses who take the decision to invest in custom software, what’s vitally important is that the software vendor totally understands what processes within the business need to be addressed, what are the metrics of a successful outcome to the project and what are the needs of the end user(s).

With the Horizon application, a custom software solution, I believe there was a fundamental mismatch between the actual customer requirement (i.e. accurate accounting for the Post Office) and the needs of the end users (ease of use by the sub postmasters). This led to software that didn’t meet the end user’s needs, a confusing system to use with extremely poor post implementation support.

Listen to your users!

The Post Office scandal was fundamentally a failure of software integrity and failings in testing and user support. Instead of understanding, postmasters struggling with the Horizon system were met with disbelief and suspicion from the Post Office. Nothing created by human beings is ever infallible, and so thorough testing of software by both vendors and users is paramount. Having a policy of actively looking for errors and bugs, instead of hoping for the best that they simply don’t exist.

The headline figure of 3,500 accusations and 900 prosecutions of Post Office branch owner-operators for theft and fraud, is truly shocking and instead of assuming the problem was ‘user error’, especially with any recurring issue, the team behind the Horizon platform or Post Office management should have asked themselves “How come so many postmasters could suddenly be at fault?”, or “How many prosecutions did we have before we implemented Horizon and how many do we have now?”  The first convictions started in 2002 and continued until 2015. While it seems obvious now, in all this time why does it seem that no-one within the Post Office queried this huge rise in cases?

Test, test and test again!

It’s the responsibility of software vendors to investigate all possible causes of faults. If many users make the same mistake, then it’s probably the fault of the software and not the users. Championing a culture of excellence in software development is vital and this starts with rigorous testing protocols, an adaptive approach and continuous feedback to get ahead of potential problems.

Never – ever – cut corners

Never paint over cracks in software development. The anthropologist David Graeber studied work and jobs – identifying a type of worker called the “Duct Taper”, a person who exists to stitch a system, company or project back together. These should never exist in software – the stickiness of the tape will wear out. So ‘painting over the cracks’ by making new code that solves one problem, runs the risk of creating more problems if it’s not fully tested from. Instead, developers need to return to their code and resolve the initial problem – without adding more potential pitfalls.

The Post Office scandal is a cautionary tale for the software industry, it reminds us of consequences of our work. Those of us who work in this innovative and brilliant sector must take these lessons to heart. We must prioritize robust software development, exemplary customer support, and unwavering ethical standards. Only then can we truly harness technology’s power and prevent more tragedies like this from taking place.