Friday 23 April 2021

Computers are not infallible, that is a fact

The choices I have made

I sometimes hope that in my professional capacity, I have done my best to help users and customers experience the best service and utility of information technology services and products I design or manage, there is a sense of professional pride in what I do.

Then, there are choices I would make about who to work for, and where I want to work, and when it appears, that I am contributing nothing useful to the situation, I do not wait around too long before I move on. I seek to improve systems where possible, where unappreciated, it is unnecessary to suffer ignominy when opportunities abound elsewhere.

I could not see myself working for Shell, the oil company in the 1990s as it was embroiled in activities inimical to Nigeria despite being offered lucrative contracts, instead, I found myself pioneering activities at British Petroleum. I can think of many other things and companies where I worked too.

In the system that concerned

Recently, I was working for a professional services company that had me posted to help manage Post Office infrastructure. I was aware of a long-running issue with computer errors that left postmasters and sub-postmasters being accused, prosecuted, and sent to jail for fraud. However, I was unaware of how serious the issue was until I listened to the BBC podcast The Great Post Office Trial.

Little did I know what a travesty and injustice the whole situation was, I was sickened by it all. To now learn that all the people charged have had their names cleared is gratifying, but it cannot compensate for how they were treated and the suffering they endured. [BBC News: Convicted Post Office workers have names cleared]

Leadership in the hock

Reverend Paula Vennells was the CEO of the Post Office from 2012 to 2019, when they pursued their staff so aggressively using the weight of the establishment over hapless postmasters and sub-postmasters to persecute, prosecute, and destroy literally blameless people who were told their individual instances of fraud and false accounting were unique and that nothing was wrong with the Post Office computer system known as Horizon. [The Guardian: Post Office’s aggressive pursuit of staff casts shadow over ex-boss’s tenure]

Even as the Post Office became aware of issues with Horizon, the establishment stood its ground about the infallibility of the computer system and used the preponderance of the premise to take people down. The CEO was unflinching and unquestioning of the situation with the view to protect the image and the brand of the Post Office admitting no liability or fault.

It took the concerted efforts of postmasters and sub-postmasters banding together, a journalist who kept on and the case, and finding support from members of Parliament and then the courts before the Post Office side of things began to unravel. The Post Office only beginning to settle more broadly with them when the Reverend had moved on to another bigger role in government and the NHS along with bagging a CBE for services to the Post Office and charity.

Accountability must matter

The scathing and excoriating opinions of the courts and the MPs involved made her position having moved on from the Post Office untenable that she has had to give up some of the high-profile positions. I do not think this would be the end of the story as justice has not been duly served and compensation for the loss of too much has not been adequate. The need for a more thorough accountability is more than essential.

Then I think about the months I worked within a team to improve the Post Office services on the Horizon counters, the times I visited locations to chat to postmasters about their experiences, the usability, and the testing of improved and enhanced products, by which time many of the issues had apparently been dealt with and I hope I did not give cover to error-prone situations that criminalised people who should have received more support than they were accorded. I even worked on improving the bar scanning system.

Some lessons to learn

In our little positions, we tried to make things better, but if there is any lesson to be learnt from this, it is that organisations should act truthfully and with integrity, that leaders should be more questioning and interested in the systems within their organisations where lives can be upturned, that they should not just listen to their reports afraid of admitting mistakes in their implementations, that computers are not infallible, that maintaining a brand at the expense of people will eventually destroy everyone involved and that this whole debacle was a disgusting disgrace.

I cannot have done this matter any justice; I am just distressed that I was remotely within a setup that impacted lives without any humanity. My sense of British fair play has been shaken to the core. Your listening to the BBC podcast The Great Post Office Trial will give a good idea of what went down. Prepare to be shocked.

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