Who Won the Week (20 February 2022)

Prompt image for the Fandango's Who Won The Week prompt

I base these posts on Fandango’s Who Won the Week posts, and I use the opportunity just to look at my own newsfeeds.


Sorry – a long one today. I’ve been meaning to post on this story for a while, but… But there is a Public Inquiry going on in the UK so my memory has been jogged.

It’s about our Post Office. This was the first post office in the world. Started under Henry VIII, and revolutionised with the Penny Black in 1840. The Royal Mail was a hugely important state organisation in the UK. Pretty much every town and village had a Post Office and was connected to a network which ensured universal coverage.

In the bad old days when governments bribed electors by selling off state assets, the Royal Mail was privatised. And, in the spirit of privatisation, many of these Post Offices ceased to exist. Instead, people who were shopkeepers anyway were encouraged to take on the work of a Post Office, for a cut.

So while we saw traditional Post Offices disappearing, we also saw counters springing up in places like newsagents.

That was all background. In the UK last year, there were 11,000 such branches. Mostly, small businesspeople, I suppose you’d call them (they’re actually called sub-postmasters here), who took on this Post Office work on a commission basis.

The problem is centered on this commission.

Calculation was difficult, so the Post Office engaged Fujitsu to write a special system, which they required all sub-postmasters to use. This package covered stock-keeping and accounting, and told sub-postmasters exactly how much they had to pay to the Royal Mail. Easy, huh?

Except their system got it wrong.

When this happened, sub-postmasters were required to pay the shortfall. Some could, but many of them were very small businesses, and this sent them under. We are talking up to hundreds of thousands, here – the same ballpark as the cost of a house.

Some were charged with fraud. One guy was banged up for 3½ years. All of them faced the grief of being told that they owed large sums of money.

This affected roughly 750 sub-postmasters, less than 10%, but still significant.

But here’s what makes the story interesting. In court, the Royal Mail repeatedly denied that its software could be at fault. Questions were raised, of course, but both they and Fujitsu denied any problem.

Actually, both were incorrect, and the result was the biggest miscarriage of justice ever seen in Britain. In fact the quashings only happened because the flaws were leaked. That’s why whistleblowers are so important.

So the public inquiry is trying to piece together how much they both knew about the flaws, while swearing in court that the system was fine. And there has already been testimony that they both knew exactly how buggy the software was, and that both covered it up.

For me, the scale of this is existential. I would be absolutely happy to put both the Post Office, history and all, and Fujitsu out of business for this. That the UK can’t put an international like Fujitsu out of business tells you what is wrong with globalisation – you can’t have global businesses unless you also have global rules, because if left to their own devices, businesses will not “do the right thing”.

But I think there is a more important aspect. The courts originally convicted these people on the basis that “the software could not be wrong”, and I think that premise should be re-evaluated. I know how software gets developed, and there comes a point where you accept some bugs, just to get something through the door. This shoddiness should not be allowed to interfere with people’s lives.

Sorry about earlier, Elspie.

18 comments

  1. It’s a very, very sad story. I’m not aware of buggy software in the Australian system (yet) but the rest of it has happened. Many “post offices” are simply counters in small news agents etc. Your potted history rang many bells.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Code is written by humans, and humans are prone to hubris, as well as to err.
    Most of my time as a coder was spent untangling overwritten code that had no purpose other than to fluff up the creator’s ‘genius’ complexity.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wasn’t aware. Good reporting job here. Pause… Kind of gives you a warm fuzzy about letting AI run more of our lives, eh? Driving cars? [Okay, an argument can be made about software controlled vehicles. I have offered my opinion on the matter many times. A large percentage of people should be prohibited from operating machinery because they are either idiots or inconsiderate reckless morons.] You [and I] software people, understand it will be one awfully long time before heuristic software manages to cleanly break from the flaws of human mental processes it is patterned after, cursed with.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. US postal system has its flaws but I think the employees are protected better than here. There used to be mom and pop centers that also catered to copying and sold Knick knacks but Covid has driven most of them out of business

    Liked by 1 person

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