When IT Goes Wrong

Hiding face looking at computer screen when IT goes wrong

Image by mrkaushikkashish from Pixabay

The biggest news in the UK at the moment is all about when IT goes wrong. Well, really it’s about the appalling injustice, destruction and simple chaos that can follow when IT goes wrong and the management who commissioned it are still believers.

And that, of course, brings us very quickly to the people who use the IT in question. And who might have been responsible.

It’s a big issue and, oddly enough, one that I started to grapple with umpty-um years ago in my first single-title novel. Not that I realised that was it was any sort of issue at the time. I just had a story and some characters and a cracking setting on an imaginary Caribbean island.

When IT Goes Wrong Spontaneously

As anyone who has sat at their desk and watched the rolling beach ball of doom spin can attest, IT can go wrong at any time.

Sometimes it’s the user’s responsibility. Fat finger syndrome is common to just about everyone on the planet.

For instance, I can’t count the times I’ve pressed two keys simultaneously. The unfortunate machine freezes.

I sort of sympathise. The poor thing can’t say, “Oh come ON. Make your mind up.” Though perhaps one day it will, come to think of it.

But often it’s something else – a power surge, local overload, mice lunching on the wiring… Nobody did anything to make it happen. Nobody’s fault.

When IT Goes Wrong through Human Agency

Goodrich Castle ruinsThis is the one we all dread. Someone somewhere thinks it would be good fun to loose a computer upon the world. The fun, I imagine, is watching the towers crumble around the world.

Or – even nastier – someone chooses to launch a virus at a particular institution or actor to disrupt their business.

Sometimes it’s a Protest, aimed at getting publicity and Making The Man Sorry. Sometimes it’s pure blackmail. “You can have your records back if you pay us for them.”

Our own British Library is struggling with exactly that at the moment. What sort of barbarian attacks a library? The barbarians are through the gates now. (This is the sort of thing that gets IT a bad rap with the Luddites out there. Can’t say I disagree.)

And sometimes it’s error, conflated with error, mis-judgement, ignorance and, eventually, it leads to downright cover up. Like the UK Post Office Scandal.

When IT Went Wrong at the Post Office

Black and white lithograph of Elizabeth Barrett Browning seated with sheets of paper in her hands. She wears a Victorian dress buttoned high to the throat, with a white lace collar, and voluminous sleeves, gathered into white cuffs .

Elizabeth Barrett

The British Post Office has a distinguished history. Some brilliant innovators, including Anthony Trollope of Barchester and Pallisers fame, put it together in the mid nineteenth century. When Robert Browning was courting Elizabeth Barrett, they could exchange two letters within a day by means of the post.

The Royal Mail was hived off into an independent company and privatised in 2013; the Post Office is still Government owned. They work in partnership.

The sub post office is a national treasure. It’s often found as a one or two man counter in the sort of local shop where you buy milk, dog food and the Sunday papers. And get the gossip. The local sub-postmaster is often the owner of the shop. He or she is technically self-employed and contracted to the Post Office to provide the service.

In 1999, the Post Office started to roll out a new accounting system, Horizon, developed by Fujitsu. Immediately errors began to occur. Post Office Management took the view that these were the result of errors, false accounting and/or fraud on the part of (eventually) more than 900 sub-postmasters. The Post Office demanded “restitution” and prosecuted.

What Happens When IT Goes Wrong?

woman tearing hairIn the Post Office’s case, sub-postmasters lost their reputation, businesses, homes and in some cases were sent to prison. There have been at least four suicides.

It is now apparent that in most, and possibly all, cases of shortfall, the fault lay with the Horizon system. And had done so from the first. In 2012 sub-postmaster Alan Bates reported the issues to Computer Weekly. Post Office Management continued to deny it.

By 2012 there was public concern in the media (Private Eye were particularly trenchant and persistent) and Parliament. The Post Office commissioned a report by  independent investigators Second Sight. It severely criticised the system. The Post Office didn’t, wouldn’t or maybe even couldn’t understand the depth and range of that criticism.

Ron Warmington of Second Sight said in 2019 that the Post Office Board was “led by the nose by its own middle management and in-house and external legal advisors”.

Can’t Get Worked up About IT?

Well, it took much, much, too long. But this tragedy has been the lead story for 2 weeks. This is because of a television drama, Mr Bates vs the Post Office. I haven’t seen it yet. Clearly it focuses on the tragic personal stories of individuals and the campaign for justice by the sub-postmaster who referred Horizon’s IT problems to the computer press.

Piles of old newspapers, loosely tied with string

Image by sonja_paetow from Pixabay

In so doing, it achieved what none of the investigative reports has managed. The 300 articles by Computer Weekly didn’t do it. BBC’s Radio 4’s award-winning 2020 series The Great Post Office Trial didn’t. Nor did Nick Wallis’s 2021 book The Great Post Office Scandal nor his on-going blog and podcasts (which I have been following and thoroughly recommend). And nor did Private Eye’s regular scathing reports, culminating in its special report of 2020  Justice Lost In The Post.

IT, when it goes this wrong, can do appalling damage.

And it is nearly impossible to get to the truth, let alone reparation, when vested interests block and protect themselves and the IT system that, against all the evidence, they have decided to believe in.

It is like the worst sort of cult.

That Novel I Mentioned…

Which brings me back to where I started. I have followed this story with varying degrees of fury and despair for a long time. When it first began to creep into the media, I was trying to revise my first full-length novel. It was already 10 years old by then and IT had moved on. The computer kept telling my heroine to press PF 16 to exit the program she was trying to use.

sunset, woman reading in a hammock under a palm tree, with beach and sky behind herThe lead character was a financial regulator. It didn’t find a publisher. A few people read it. One, brutal but well-meaning, said, “It’s about banking. Women don’t read books about banking. Men don’t read books with a female lead. Forget the Caribbean beaches and the hurricane excitement. You’ve got yourself a story with no market at all.”

That is probably still true. And I was new to that sort of story and quite a lot of it was a real mess. (It is genuinely  beyond salvage.) Now I’m pretty certain that is because the key to the protagonist’s character is her utter hopelessness when the computer delivers answers that don’t, can’t, make sense.

It was by far the biggest problem in the book. And I left it unsolved.

I know better now.

Sophie Weston Author


10 thoughts on “When IT Goes Wrong

  1. lesley2cats

    An excellent, clear explanation, Sophie. I haven’t watched the drama because I know I would find it too distressing, but I applaud those who made it. And sorry about the novel!

  2. Liz Fielding

    Like Lesley, and for the same reason, I haven’t watched the drama although I have been following the story for a long time with horror, particularly as my own local post office was caught up in this. I am aggrieved about your book, though, aware that if a man had been the protagonist it would definitely have had a market. Great blog.

    1. Joanna

      I’m sure Liz is right about the male protagonist. And it’s a shame.

      As a Private Eye subscriber, I’ve been following the Post Office scandal for years, and fuming that nothing was being done. One key factor in all this is that the courts work on the presumption that the output from computer systems is always correct unless proven otherwise. We all know that’s garbage. I’m hoping that, as a result of this scandal, that legal presumption will be reversed.

      1. Sophie Post author

        I agree that the Courts’ generalised assumption that IT outputs are reliable unless proved otherwise is unjustified. It has something in common with Post Office Management’s similar assumption – possibly because if they CAN’T assume that, then they’re drowning. So they cling to the conviction, like members of a cult.

        But some people definitely knew that the system was throwing up anomalies. In the podcast interview to which I linked above, Mark Baker,long-serving sub-postmaster and a Union representative, says that Fujitsu employees showed him that they could (and told him they did) change original input figures. They went through an unacknowledged back door to the program. This was presumably intended to “tidy up” rather than investigate these anomalies. (Early study of Errors and Omissions in accounting statements is always a good idea for a regulator!)

        The practice seems to have resulted in creating fictional assets with no corresponding liability. This in turn gave the Post Office illusory profits. Another reason for Management not to look too closely at the nuts and bolts of the system, maybe?

        But basically, the problem was that the tool didn’t work and neither the tool maker nor the tool user was prepared to brace up and admit it. And the Courts connived at it, notwithstanding those 300 critical articles in the industry magazine.

    2. Sophie Post author

      That you Lesley, Liz and Joanna for your sympathy on my poor book. I was very new to the genre and it really was a bit of a mess though – not least because I missed a major point in my own story!

  3. Elizabeth Bailey

    I have just had a personal instance of IT horror! So much advice about cleaning one’s list I decided to see if I could remove dead wood from my newsletter subscribers. I sent an SOS to 750 names (which the system told me had not opened for 24 months) warning they should open if they didn’t want to be removed. I’ve had an absolute deluge of emails from readers who say they open everything, can’t understand why they got the email and please don’t remove them. When I checked with the host, apparently if anyone has privacy issues enabled or only reads in preview or online, the open doesn’t register, thus rendering the entire exercise abortive. I’ve responded to everyone personally but will now have to do an abject apology and explanation email to the lot. Note to self: do not attempt to clean the list, just leave it alone!

    1. Joanna

      Oh wow! But at least you found the problem before you’d done any list cleaning. Phew! I’ve never attempted to clean the Liberta list. If subscribers haven’t confirmed, I send them 2 reminders. If they still don’t confirm, I remove them, but that’s all I do.

      1. Elizabeth Bailey

        Ha! Having said all that, I have just discovered that in fact the problem was not a technical glitch. Instead, it was a human gigantic senior moment. I sent the email not to the 750 group, but to the WHOLE group. I may just abandon ship altogether… after I’ve written the apology email!

        1. Joanna

          Made me smile, Liz. And it’s a classic example of the human error Sophie was talking about in the blog. It’s SO very easily done. But look on the bright side: loads of your subscribers are desperate NOT to miss your newsletters. That’s a great accolade, I’d say.

    2. Sophie Post author

      I don’t trust information I find on the Web unless it is confirmed by independent sources, preferably from books or newspapers. But I have always thought that systems told you the truth about themselves. Clearly your list host have been selective when disseminating information on its activities. Fujitsu, it seems, was also distinctly economical with the truth.

      I shall be more wary from now on.

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