The Governance Myths that led to the Horizon Post Office Scandal

Published: Posted on
A Post Office shop front

By James Blackmore-Wright, Birmingham Business School and Alice Moore, Department of Public Administration and Policy

Sometimes, it takes a TV show, such as “Mr Bates vs the Post Office”, to challenge common myths, even in the face of obvious shortcomings. The massive failings that led to over 900 sub-postmasters being wrongfully prosecuted and others losing their homes and life savings were enabled by two powerful myths. One is that, as one of the most trusted institutions in the country, the Post Office, was beyond reproach. The other is that technology development should be left to the “experts”, especially where government systems are concerned. We take on both myths and think about how organisations can challenge dangerous assumptions.

Myth 1: National treasures can do no wrong
James Blackmore-Wright, Birmingham Business School

The venerated image of “National Treasure” organisations, such as the Post Office, casts a shadow over the principles of accountability and transparency. So often it takes something like a TV series to challenge the myth that such institutions are beyond criticism.

Money, Sex, Religion…

Never discuss these topics at a party, goes the old British adage. The rationale being that topics that are too personal and one is likely to look foolish (I stick to talking about the weather, which is probably why I don’t get many party invites!).

At the heart of the problem is the Post Office’s transformation into an entity whose identity is held sacred, insulated from critique and commentators reluctant to discuss any shortcomings in the same way that religion is often off-topic at parties. As it nestles into the public’s affection, it seemingly earns an unwritten exemption from scrutiny. However, the consequence of this adoration is the erosion of critical thinking. When the respect for an institution calcifies into an unassailable reverence, objectivity and critical thinking tend to disappear. This blind spot in public perception is dangerous.

The leadership of these “untouchable” organisations often becomes so synonymous with the institution that they are perceived as infallible. In such a culture, challenging the status quo is tantamount to heresy. Yet, history and the revelations from the show remind us that it’s precisely these institutions that require vigilant oversight. The absence of hard questions like, “What is the actual issue?” or “How can we be certain there’s a problem?” creates a vacuum where errors go unchecked, and systemic issues fester.

It is imperative to recalibrate our approach to such organisations. They must be held to the same standards of scrutiny as any other, ensuring that accountability and transparency are not lost to tradition or affection.

Myth 2: Private tech suppliers know best
Alice Moore, Department of Public Administration and Policy

There’s a long-standing assumption that government doesn’t know what it’s doing when it comes to technology, so development should be outsourced. The Post Office clearly believed this myth. They put complete trust in Horizon system’s supplier, Fujitsu. Even after they knew something was wrong, they continued to defend them and insisted that the Horizon system was infallible.

But outsourced technology so often goes wrong. It’s caused major delays and overspends on systems for Universal Credit, tax collection, and emergency services communications. And it’s resulted in failed schemes to introduce digital border systems and regional fire control centres.

Private suppliers often don’t have superior technical expertise they might promise in impressive sales pitches. In the case of Fujitsu, they didn’t have the skills needed to develop a system like Horizon. In his brilliant book on the subject, Nick Wallis quotes an expert brought in to figure out what was going wrong with the system: “They had a team of eight developers who were some of the worst people I’ve ever seen … it was like kindergarten.”

Part of the problem is that, when government bodies outsource development, they find it hard to understand the technology. Even if the Post Office had wanted to challenge the line they were getting from Fujitsu, they didn’t have the know-how or information about the system to do that.

Because the supplier has all the knowledge and controls the technology, it makes it almost impossible to replace them. Even now, Fujitsu still hold the contract for Horizon. Buyers like the Post Office become invested in the financial success of their suppliers because they can’t afford for them to go under. So, they support their supplier and end up perpetuating the myth that these companies are experts and their systems are robust.

What can we learn?

Both myths survived because dissenting voices stayed silent. In the end, some did speak out, but it took several whistle-blowers and a high-profile TV series to expose failings. Organisations could save a lot of money and reputational damage if they encourage criticism before it gets to this point. They can invite skilled scrutiny and develop these capabilities internally. And they can foster a culture where critique is welcomed, and people are encouraged to be objective without fear of losing face.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *