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Keep your software maintained, it could save lives: In the wake of the PNG and Fujitsu controversies

By Jack Campbell | |6 minute read

The recent catastrophe that hit Papua New Guinea (PNG) may have been preventable if the payroll software systems used were running effectively. But they aren’t the only ones to experience these issues.

As recently reported by HR Leader, a payroll error led to widespread looting, shooting, and arson across Papua New Guinea, beginning 10 January.

Government workers walked off the job after being underpaid due to a payroll system error, and the absence of police is reportedly what led to the riots kicking off.


This is an extreme case of software system failure resulting in multiple deaths, prompting the need for adequate and maintained processes.

The software in question

It was reported that the PNG government’s ALESCO pay system is to blame for the underpayments. This is the software used to pay public servants and teachers across the nation.

“The ALESCO system is the PNG government’s HR and payroll system. Public servants within the Parliament and state-owned entity, National Broadcasting Corporation, raised complaints of non-payment, which were directed and levelled against the finance department,” said PNG Facts.

Another news outlet claims that payroll has been “plagued” over the years and that the ALESCO system was supposed to address these issues.

Launched on 19 March 2023, the ALESCO system was praised for finally addressing pay inequities. One teacher, Margaret Kinau, was reportedly working unpaid for 11 years before the system was introduced.

“It has been so long since my two colleagues and I were on the payroll. We were very impressed that this thing was handed over to the province. We are one of those who will be added onto the payroll system so we are proud,” said Ms Kinau.

“We have been waiting for this for too long, and it’s here and we’re looking forward to getting paid. This is our 11th year; for too long, we haven’t been paid. We were just teaching.”

It was only in June 2023 that the same news outlet reported that the PNG government was working to fix payroll issues.

“The version upgrade project by DPM is one of the corrective measures being undertaken by the department to address issues on the current payroll system version 12, which has become obsolete and unsupported, requiring the upgrade to be undertaken immediately,” said Public Service Minister Joe Sungi.

With the ALESCO system being in operation for less than a year before these payroll issues arose, it prompts the question: Was it ready? The rioting that came from the system failure, and the deaths of 22 people may have been preventable if the software was properly maintained.

Not the only system in hot water

Unfortunately, in the same week that software error resulted in riots across PNG, so too was it revealed that a UK software error left 900 British post office workers falsely convicted, which also resulted in deaths.

Fujitsu implemented faulty accounting software that reportedly led to multiple managers being imprisoned for theft or fraud, dating back to the introduction of the software in 1999.

Fujitsu is now working to compensate affected workers: “I think there is a moral obligation for the company to contribute … To the sub-postmasters and their families, Fujitsu would like to apologise for our part in this appalling miscarriage of justice,” said Paul Patterson, Europe director of Japan’s Fujitsu.

Mr Patterson was reportedly aware from the beginning that the Horizon system had bugs and errors, yet continued with its implementation. Even when branch managers were being accused of theft and fraud as unexplained losses kept arising, Fujitsu claimed they were lying and that the sales accounting software was reliable.

Similar to the ALESCO software, it is reported that deaths came from this error, as some committed suicide and others attempted suicide due to these wrongful convictions.

In 2016, a group of postal workers took legal action, and in 2022, a public inquiry began, which is ongoing.

Janine Powell was one of the workers who was falsely accused of stealing £71,000 and was sentenced to 18 months in prison in 2008.

“It’s scandalous, it should never have happened … I wasn’t the only one, but that’s what I was told: ‘It’s only you, you’re the only one,’” said Ms Powell.

“It had a big impact. You have to declare obviously that you’ve got a criminal record … When you try to explain (to employers), it’s a ‘no’ straight away, so I couldn’t work.”

Put the right foot forward

These extreme examples show just how important it is to keep systems maintained. Being proactive in maintenance can prevent issues like Fujitsu’s and ALESCO’s from arising, and in these cases, saving lives.

Information Week provided seven tips for improving software maintenance:

  1. Listen to your help desk.
  2. Engage quality assurance.
  3. Consider a move to the cloud.
  4. Sunset the applications that aren’t returning value.
  5. Always regression test.
  6. Use standardised procedures for the installation of new software releases.
  7. Optimise your software maintenance team.
Jack Campbell

Jack Campbell

Jack is the editor at HR Leader.