post office

What’s your field of view?

It’s a no-brainer…

Of course she should.

Should have done earlier. Paula Anne Vennells, has handed back her CBE.

She was born, 21 February 1959, is a British ex-businesswoman, an Anglican priest and was CEO of Post Office Limited from 2012 to 2019.

Under her leadership, the Post Office prosecuted sub-postmasters for theft, false accounting and fraud, despite evidence that its Horizon computer system was unreliable and could incorrectly show financial discrepancies.

As a private prosecutor, the Post Office repeatedly failed to make full disclosure of known Horizon problems, either to defendants or to the courts.

This happened in hundreds of cases. According to the Criminal Cases Review Commission is;

“… the most widespread miscarriage of justice the CCRC has ever seen… the biggest single series of wrongful convictions in British legal history”.

Vennells was awarded the CBE in the 2019 New Years honours list for ‘services to the Post Office and to charity’.

In 2019, Vennells became chair of the Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust in London.

The CQC discussed concerns about her continuing role in the NHS on 8 July 2020. By December she announced she’d quit but stayed-on until April, when 39 of the sub-postmasters’ convictions were quashed.

She also resigned as an Anglican priest.

The question that comes out of all this; what did she really know and when. I can’t get over the fact she was ordained as a priest.

This sorry and brutal affair, pursuing innocent people, maliciously ruining lives, tells me Vennells was either willing to accept appalling advice from people in her management and legal teams, or knew exactly what the situation was.

And of course, there is the Board that have, thus far, escaped press attention but who are really the culpable group.

A quick look at Companies House, tells us whilst this debacle was happening there were plenty of churn in non-executive board members and chairs.

Alice Perkins was Post Office chairwoman, 2011-2015. She was previously a civil servant and is the wife of Jack Straw, the former home secretary.

Perkins served as chairwoman when 120 sub-postmasters were prosecuted. Between 1999 and 2015, more than 700 sub-postmasters were accused of wrongdoing.

One wonders if it ever crossed her mind… it was strange that so many postmasters had suddenly gone rogue?

In the past, no doubt some sub-postmasters have been dishonest. A handful? I’m hearing no more than about 5 a year. Did the Board think that the new Horizon system had uncovered a previously unknown level of industrial dishonesty?

Enter, cognitive bias; we believe what we want to believe. The Post Office has been around since god wore short-trousers, the best in the world. Fujitsu, a global software giant… we can’t be wrong. Thank goodness for Horizon.

Welcome to group-think…

… say hello to conformity bias; when decisions are made the tendency, particularly for NEDs, is to fall in behind. ‘We have excellent, experienced and qualified executives, we must support them’.

By then institutional obstinacy and the illusion of control takes over.

Text books on business management and the failure of boards are full of warnings we ignore… Airbus 380, Columbia Shuttle, Microsoft X-box,

What happened to the common-sense that must tell you 700 referenced and screened folk with hitherto impeccable records, turning into crooks, at the same time as the installation of a new accounting system… err…mmmm… er…ask a question!

Was the answer… ‘the new all-singing-all-dancing system has unearthed all sorts but we need to keep it quiet, to maintain trust in the post office’.

Circling the wagons? Which of the NEDs challenged, probed, was awkward?

Did Ms Perkins, take Mrs Vennells to one-side and ask… is there anything I should know?

• Was there an illusion of Board unanimity… did people really know but kept quiet?
• Unquestioned loyalty and belief in the executives… too cosy?
• A misconception of invulnerability… this is the Post Office, we can’t be wrong.
• Conformity… the IT director is the best there is, knows what’s what. Trust them.

There’s a lesson here for all non-executive directors and chairs…

… what’s going on down-your-way… do you know?

• Is your hospital safe?
• How do you know?
• What’s the current state of play with complaints, whistleblowers, delays?
• Do you know and understand the organisation’s finances?
• Sickness levels, rota gaps, leaver’s interviews.
• Hospital acquired infections.
• What’s the status of the risk register, and what’s left off it

Do you know what questions to ask?

Can you influence outcomes and add value without undermining the management?

Are you professional and objective in your approach?

Do you feel confident about expressing strongly held personal views in the best interests of the organisation?

Do you feel confident you really ‘know what’s what’ or are you secretly out-of-your depth?

Are you listened to and who do you listen to?

Do you feel confident you can see the whole picture?

The post office board couldn’t have understood the landscape and that’s why they didn’t see ‘the Horizon’.

What’s your field of view?

News and Comment from Roy Lilley
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Reproduced at by kind permission of Roy Lilley.