Episode 1 - A Very British IT Scandal

It was incredibly difficult to select a topic for our very first episode of The Connected Integrated Show because there is so much to cover at the intersection of IT, OT and Telecommunications. But it seems that the zeitgeist presented the obvious choice with the release of a poignant docudrama called Mr Bates vs The Office. We are going to talk about a very British IT Scandal, an egregious miscarriage of justice and a total failure to transform a complex system which on one hand was meant to enable a retail business and on the other was supposed to strengthen a public service.

For my generation, born in the 1970s, growing up during the 1980s years of the “home computer revolution” and finishing high school/starting our careers at the very beginning of the commercial Internet age, this whole IT Scandal brings back memories of a different era when public services were very much delivered directly by government departments, agencies and (sometimes) corporations. The mass privatization of state assets was a 1990s feature, something which gained momentum in the aftermath of the 1990-1991 global recession (rising inflation, the aftermath of banking crisis like the savings and loans collapse, not to mention the first Gulf War). Governments were eager to find ways of boosting the public treasury and move some spending “off balance sheet”. The UK was no different and some public services programs became candidates for a curious instrument known as a “Private Finance Initiative”.

It is within this context that the UK Government wished to tighten up public spending, promote more private sector business involvement in the economy and in general toughen up rules for access to welfare benefits. And the one institution at the epicenter of all of this was the Post Office, because of its role in distributing benefits payments (everything from state pensions to childcare allowances) to individual residents. Up until the introduction of the Horizon IT System, this distribution channel was paper based and relied on human to human trust to ensure that benefits were allocated to the right person. For example a Subpostmaster in a small village would typically know the people in his or her community and would verify the identity of the person. In larger towns and cities this would work provided the branch Post Office was in close proximity to residents. It seems to me that this whole concept of human to human trust was completely overlooked by UK Government zeal to automate and digitize their welfare retail channel.

Given the politics involved in driving such a massive transformation agenda it is no surprise that the consensus between government departments broke down, with divergent agendas (especially within the Department of Social Security and the Benefits Agency which placed them at opposition to the UK Post Office) questioning the original motivation. And yet the program continued and assumptions were maintained in the high level strategy, especially for the UK Post Office. This all placed severe strain on the private sector contractor, at the time ICL Pathway (later to become Fujitsu Services).

There’s an important lesson here, especially as we start 2024 (25 years after the Horizon go-live). We tend to place great faith in technology solutions as a cure-all for malaise in society. But we forget that the breakdown in trust is not a result of a lack of technology implementation but rather a breakdown in our human to human interactions. I find it ironic that theme for this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos is “Rebuilding Trust” (yes that link to Fujitsu’s web site was deliberate!).

In the wild rush to embrace AI, digital currencies and digital identity schemes it would serve us well to take a step back, zoom out and consider our humanity and the type of society that we all would like to live in. Only then can we make a balanced evaluation of technology options whether they are for IT (Information Systems and Data Processing), OT (Automation, Process Control) and Telecommunications (Network Connectivity).