post office

The Post Office Scandal – Endless state IT-related failure impacts Europe’s ability to produce Category leaders

Written by Jonathan Simnett

The appalling Post Office Horizon scandal highlights a culture that makes central government, with some notable exceptions, `a dysfunctional buyer of IT` and crucially affects the UK’s ability to produce Category leaders.

Japanese tech giant, Fujitsu, has suffered a financial fall from grace which recently wiped off more than a billion dollars off its value within just eight days. This is because it is embroiled in the Post Office Horizon scandal, which is gripping the UK right now thanks to a Government inquiry and a TV dramatisation.

Biggest miscarriage of justice

Described as the ‘Biggest miscarriage of justice in UK history”, the scandal has seen hundreds of innocent sub-postmasters, who had done nothing more than diligently serve their local communities, wrongfully prosecuted. Yet Fujitsu’s Horizon software system, which they were required to use, made it look like money had been stolen from tills when the days’ takings could not be reconciled using the software.

The task of delivering the system had originally fallen to ICL, the UK’s one-time national champion tech supplier. Fujitsu took on Horizon having become ICL’s sole shareholder in 1998. Between 1999 and 2015, nearly 1000 sub-postmasters were prosecuted by The Post Office for offences such as theft, fraud and false accounting. 

Lied, lied and lied again

One of the key issues that drove this misery was that Fujitsu and The Post Office, on their behalf, maintained that it did not have access to the sub-postmasters accounts, so any discrepancies in the figures on the system could only have come from the sub-postmasters themselves.

This was not true. Fujitsu and The Post Office lied, lied and lied again and got away with it until a more than a decade-long campaign secured a 2019 High Court ruling that the sub-postmasters convicted were at no fault.

For us, part of the scandal is one of its causes –  the apparent lack of understanding of even the most basic of technology concepts by the UK’s governing, legal and business establishment. 

The idea to anyone in the tech industry that as the provider and maintainer of the system Fujitsu would not have access to the sub-postmasters accounts, at least for reasons of cybersecurity, tech upgrades and so on, and would not potentially be able to change the data inputted, is laughable.  Yet this was accepted by the powers-that-be who pressed on with a witch hunt.

£40bn of state IT-related failures

Because of the appalling nature of its impact The Post Office scandal stands out.  But UK public sector IT system installations have been going badly wrong for decades, it seems as part of the same malaise that ended so tragically for the sub-postmasters.

Computer Weekly was the ‘lowly’ trade publication that more than any other media exposed the doubts that existed over Horizon from the earliest days. Two years ago, two venerable former Computer Weekly journalists David Bicknell (now Principal Analyst at Thematic Intelligence, GlobalData) and Tony Collins (co-founder along with Bicknell of Campaign4Change) compiled a list of 43 years of state IT project disasters – and they’re still happening.

They identified “the systemic causes of around £40bn of state IT-related failures are truth decay, excessive secrecy, no consequences for getting it wrong and the misleading of Parliament – a decades-old “conceal-and-deny” approach.”

A dysfunctional buyer of IT

Most notably “The Establishment” also emphasised that the still ongoing “public inquiry into the Post Office IT scandal is looking at the Horizon system alone – not the Whitehall culture that makes central government,with some notable exceptions, a dysfunctional buyer of IT.“

In Categorical’s opinion this chicanery is designed to cover up the results of tech ignorance amongst those signing the cheques and bearing responsibility for the results. It’s a rot at the heart of the public sector and is a brake on the UK’s ability  to develop Category-leading ecosystems where the successful implementation of systems is a powerful demonstrator of the capability of new Categories and public sector investment a powerful accelerator and validator.

What could be a showcase for the country is a national embarrassment. Yet pretty much the same civil servants, contractors and consultants are involved in failed project after failed project for which the taxpayer foots the bill and for which there appears to be little or no comeback or consequence.

Whitehall needs to act quickly to improve its own performance

Fujitsu, for instance, currently has more than £2bn worth of contracts with the UK government, holding the status of a key strategic supplier. According to the UK’s Guardian newspaper, it has secured 101 of these contracts since the 2019 ruling.

As the nature of IT changes, new, big players are moving in.  Established cloud services Category leader AWS secured 3 contracts worth £894m in recent weeks.  Each of these new deals is significantly larger in value than its predecessor.

Computer Weekly claims the £450m Home Office contract that was awarded is nearly four times the value of the previous deal it had in place with AWS. Let’s hope AWS infrastructure is more successful in supporting innovation and Category creation than other suppliers.

There are some good reasons why central government should want to give contracts to `big suppliers` clearly, scale and, ironically, associated risk reduction.  But it needs to act quickly to improve its own performance and its choice of `the usual suspects` particularly when this combination repeatedly does not deliver for citizens and Category leadership is not enabled for the nation’s tech industry. 

Find more discussion on The Post Office Horizon scandal and many other contentious Category issues on The Difference Engine podcast at

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