How open is the Post Office?

19th January 2024 | Jonathan Field

I’d like to say I “enjoyed” “Mr Bates vs The Post Office” on television this New Year but, actually, it left me feeling angry and upset. The cast and script are of the highest quality, featuring some of the UK’s finest character actors in Toby Jones, Julie Hesmondhalgh and Monica Dolan. I’d be staggered if we’re not hearing about it at the BAFTAs! I’ve followed the Post Office Horizon IT scandal for some years. The BBC produced an excellent podcast on the topic back in 2020, “The Great Post Office Trial” and, as it happens, the local postmistress at my previous home town was one of the convicted (and imprisoned) victims. Her story is truly horrific. 

All of us who are following this story (and it really is all of the UK population now!) are probably totally exasperated and bemused how this could even happen. It’s something I’ve been thinking about the last few weeks. I’ve listened to the testimonies and thoughts of both the Post Office and Fujitsu and it leaves me open-mouthed. 

Library systems are complex systems but probably pale in comparison to the complexities of auditing post office transactions. Therefore I can understand that these systems may not be perfect. We certainly have (and have to fix) bugs in our library applications. It goes without saying then that the same would be true in a complex system like the Horizon system used at the Post Office.

The bigger question is “how do you respond to that?”. At our daily support roundup we discuss tickets which are coming into our helpdesk. It does happen from time to time that a staff member will say “I saw that same problem last week at …..” and then we’ll discuss it and see if there is a pattern. We look after around 200 systems. The Post Office is looking after considerably more (circa 12,000 post offices in the UK) so It is explainable that maybe they wouldn’t have the same personal approach to support nor the oversight that we have at PTFS Europe. That, I see, is one of the benefits of working with SME’s, the personal oversight, staff who talk to each other every day and attention to detail. 

Let’s consider that patterns like this weren’t identified and give Fujitsu the benefit of the doubt. Well then, what happened to the QA process of the code? The ongoing inquiry was told that “there were probably three or four [people] who just weren’t up to it and weren’t capable of producing professional code”. This is the point I ask myself “could this even have happened if the software code had been an open source project?”. Firstly, all bugs and enhancements are tracked through a bug tracking system that is in the public domain. In the case of the Koha open source library management system that is Bugzilla. PTFS Europe cannot sign off code written by PTFS Europe (we can’t just say “our code is probably good enough”). It has to be signed off and QA’d by a separate organisation. This is important. We are all learning in life, people make mistakes and we grow and learn. In the open source communities we work in, people are friendly and willing to help each other learn and grow. I wouldn’t have code accepted that wasn’t “professional” but I may well find someone who is willing to mentor me to improve my code, fix it and have it submitted. 

Finally, and most importantly in this instance, the code that we work with is all in the public domain. The open source adage of “many eyes” on the code. If something is going wrong I couldn’t hide behind it saying “there is nothing wrong with it”, someone else across the globe can look at it and say “well, you may think that, but it just doesn’t work!”. Those poor post office owners couldn’t check the code to either prove they were right or wrong, or even use it to provide evidence in their case. They also couldn’t have even paid for a software developer to look at it for them. It simply wasn’t accessible, it was “closed source”. 

I became a business owner for, I’m sure, exactly the same reasons as most of those post office owners. They would have all had aspirations of being a small business owner. To control their own destiny, to serve their customers to their highest standards, to offer value and to serve a community. They had those dreams taken away from them through no fault of their own. They also wanted to make a “living”, not a “fortune”. I would argue that many large businesses and public bodies now are too focused on making a “fortune” at the expense of customer focus and service to the communities they support.

Only time will tell what the conclusions are from this story but, for now, we continue to believe that open source development is best for us, our customers and library communities around the world. We believe that it provides the best outcome. Let’s just hope that the best outcome is reached for the victims of the Horizon IT system.


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