The year is 2009, and a crisis is unfolding across the UK's Post Office network. Sub-postmasters and vital community figures responsible for the local operation of Post Offices, are being imprisoned, facing bankruptcy, and even driven to suicide. At the heart of this turmoil is a mystery: great sums of money appear to be missing. Initially, the blame is squarely placed on these sub-postmasters, accused of theft and fraud.
Yet, unbeknownst to many at the time, the true culprit was not human error or malfeasance, but a flawed digital transformation initiative. This is the story of the Horizon system, developed by Japanese IT company, Fujitsu, and how its implementation in 1999 marked the beginning of one of the most “significant miscarriages of justice in British history.”
The Genesis of the Crisis - Horizon's Rollout
In 1999, the UK Post Office began the national roll-out of the Horizon system, an ambitious project aimed at modernizing its network. Developed by Fujitsu, this IT system was designed to handle the complex task of managing transactions across the Post Office's vast network of branches. By 2000, Horizon was operational in over 10,000 branches, and it seemed like a step into the future for the Post Office.
However, soon after its implementation, sub-postmasters started reporting serious discrepancies. The Horizon system was erroneously showing shortfalls in their accounts, sometimes amounting to tens of thousands of pounds.
Despite these reports, the Post Office maintained that the Horizon system was accurate and reliable, dismissing claims of system faults. This stance led to a tragic series of events where many sub-postmasters were prosecuted based on the incorrect data provided by Horizon, with devastating consequences for their lives and reputations.
As the cases of wrongful convictions grew, the truth slowly began to surface. Investigations revealed that the Horizon system was indeed flawed. The system had bugs and errors that led to the false accounting discrepancies. Despite this evidence, the Post Office continued to prosecute sub-postmasters, leading to a protracted legal battle.
Where Horizon Failed - An Amalgamation of Human and Technical Missteps
The failure of the UK Post Office's Horizon system was a multifaceted challenge involving both technical flaws and operational mishandling. At the heart of these technical failures were issues related to system consistency, isolation, durability, and log replication.
Collectively, they contributed to the incorrect accounting of transactions and ultimately led to the wrongful prosecution of hundreds of subpostmasters.
Horizon's system faced issues with consistency, isolation, and durability. In 2010, it failed to sync counter and backend accounting, leading to accounting mismatches. Concurrent transactions interfered with each other, affecting report accuracy. In 2016, a national outage revealed a lack of durability, as committed transactions weren't permanently recorded, causing significant branch issues.
Early versions of Horizon faced challenges with log replication, a critical function for maintaining a consistent state between all computers in a branch and the Post Office's back-end systems. Failures in this area led to discrepancies and inconsistencies in accounting across the network of branches.
Beyond these technical issues, the Post Office's strategy of using criminal and civil legal actions to suppress complaints from sub-postmasters created a culture of fear and deterrence. Those who attempted to challenge the system or sought external IT expertise were often met with legal action or forced into silence through non-disclosure agreements.
The Post Office's denial of the system's faults and its insistence on the accuracy of Horizon data led to the prosecution of numerous sub-postmasters based on erroneous information. These wrongful prosecutions and the failure to address the reported issues effectively contributed significantly to the scandal.
Lastly, the complex web of responsibility and accountability surrounding the Horizon project, combined with a failure to adequately respond to the concerns raised by sub-postmasters, hindered timely resolution and recognition of the system's faults.
Together, these technical and operational failures resulted in one of the “largest miscarriages of justice in UK history”, highlighting the importance of robust IT systems, ethical management, and responsive governance in public sector projects.
In the words of Bill Gates, "The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency."
The Aftermath, Reflections and the Call for Responsible Digital Transformation
Looking back to 2009, a time where Alan Bates, founder of, and campaigner for the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA) in the British Post Office scandal, launched a campaign for a court ruling, seeking to deliver justice to the hundreds of postmasters and their families. The scandal culminated in a series of legal battles, leading to a landmark High Court ruling in 2019, which exposed the extent of the Horizon system's failures and the Post Office's mishandling of the situation.
The UK Post Office scandal, emerging from the Horizon system's failure, serves as a critical lesson in the realm of digital transformation. It starkly illustrates how technological advancements, while offering immense potential, carry significant risks if not managed with vigilance and foresight.
It is also a notable case where the principles of responsible digital transformation, had they been applied, could have potentially prevented or mitigated the issues that arose. Here's how some principles could have been relevant:
Identifying Desired Business Outcomes: The original goal of the Horizon system was to modernize and automate the payment of benefits at post offices. A clearer focus on this outcome, with an understanding of potential risks and impacts on subpostmasters, might have led to a more cautious and user-centric approach to the system's development and implementation.
Mapping and Measuring KPIs: Key performance indicators (KPIs) that measured not only the system's technical performance but also its impact on subpostmasters' operations could have provided early warning signs of the problems. These KPIs could have included error rates, user satisfaction scores, and the frequency of reported discrepancies.
Assessing Process Maturity: The Post Office could have assessed the readiness of its branches and subpostmasters for such a significant technological change. Understanding their current process maturity and comfort with technology would have helped tailor the system and training programs to their needs.
Investment Prioritization: The project faced delays and budget overruns. A more strategic approach to investment, prioritizing critical system features like robust error checking and user-friendly interfaces, could have been more effective.
Tracking Progress and Reassessing Goals: Continuous tracking of the system's performance and its impact on subpostmasters, followed by regular reassessment of goals, would have been crucial. This could have helped identify and address issues early on, before they led to widespread problems.
Execution and Continuous Reassessment: The Post Office's failure to acknowledge and investigate the reported issues with the Horizon system was a significant oversight. A more responsive and iterative approach to system development and deployment, including feedback loops with users (subpostmasters), might have identified and rectified the system's flaws sooner.
In the Horizon case, the lack of a transparent and responsive system for addressing subpostmasters' concerns, combined with an aggressive legal approach against those who reported discrepancies, exacerbated the situation. This highlights the importance of not just the technical aspects of a digital transformation project, but also the cultural, operational, and ethical dimensions.
If your organization is aiming to digitally transform, make sure that it is done the right way. Process-first, people-centric, and with the on-going oversight that is required. Click here to find out more about how our experts at Capacitor Partners can help you.