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Last week, I published my first blog on the scandal of the UK’s Post Office IT Scandal. I described how this IT scandal has become the biggest story in the United Kingdom at the time of writing. In the week since, nothing has changed. This BBC page summarises their numerous articles – the quantity in such a short period of time seems unprecedented and meanwhile, the story continues to dominate the front pages.

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Figure 1 - Selection of front pages since the first blog

This blog will focus on some of the lessons we can learn with a particular focus on leadership, or the absence thereof, at the Post Office.

Leaders should lead by example

As a leader, lead from the front and don’t hide in the shadows. Don’t ever think that your seniority will mean you will avoid scrutiny or accountability. The CEO of the Post Office, Paula Venells, was awarded a CBE “for services to the Post Office and to charity” – this is one of the highest public honours issued in the UK. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that she will suffer the ignominy of losing that honour. In fact, since writing that she returned the honour in the face of unprecedented public pressure - a petition with over 1 million signatories.

Venells has lost all of her paid and honorary positions, including as a priest for the Church of England. Her reputation has been destroyed and there will be worse to come when the Inquiry’s results are published. Even the Church of England no longer defends her reputation and they are as forgiving as anyone! Whilst this is clearly generic advice, it applies to all of us in our everyday lives and the failure of leadership haunts the Post Office to this day.

Before completing this point, it is important to remember that we are all leaders within our own domains. Sure, some of us may have smaller domains, others may have larger domains, but everybody has responsibility for their own actions. I will illustrate this point in a future blog when we review attitude of one of the Post Office’s senior prosecutors, Jarnail Singh.

Don’t behave as if you are in a private bubble

Whatever you do at work, think of how you would feel if your emails, notes, minutes, recordings etc. were published in the press or in court? Would you feel totally comfortable with all your actions? If so, great. If not, then you might need to reconsider your approach.

Are you naively assuming that everything will stay private for ever? Be warned, the actions of the Post Office led to false convictions and imprisonment, bankruptcies and suicides. The level of public scrutiny is almost unprecedented. One can only assume that there are people at the Post Office and Fujitsu who struggle to sleep at night. As a result of the ongoing Statutory Inquiry the Post Office is legally obliged to share all of its documentation – eventually everything will become public!

Integrity is not an optional extra

Act with integrity at all times. Post Office investigators systematically told SPMs under investigation that they were literally the only people claiming to experience issues with the Horizon system. As a result, their concerns were dismissed. This Post Office tactic was simply a lie – there is no other way to describe it. The lies were critical to maintaining the myth that Horizon was a robust system. When this lie was first propagated, social media was in its infancy. Such a crass and crude approach would be unimaginable in today’s highly connected world. I never bring religion into work but, given Ms Vennells’s background as a former priest, a reference to the ninth of the Ten Commandments seems appropriate: You shall not give false witness against your neighbour”.

Let me repeat that – “Integrity is not an optional extra”

As you are learning about the Post Office scandal, the behaviour of the Post Office’s employees, particularly its leadership, was absent of values. However, the scandal isn’t just limited to the behaviour during the period of the prosecutions of innocent SPMs. In fact, it isn’t even limited to the cover-up that took places as evidence of the scandal started to leak. Incredibly, it isn’t even limited to the period up until the public Inquiry. There is clear evidence that the current leadership of the Post Office have exhibited behaviour that can only be described as disgraceful.

If you are ever wondering where to find one of the most egregious examples of corporate and individual greed, look no further. Quite incredibly, the Post Office’s current leadership paid themselves a bonus partly related to supporting the needs of the Inquiry – something they were legally obliged to do. Nick Wallis was first to break this story last year[1] and it is all based upon the false recording of annual objectives as being achieved when they were not.

UK Post Office 2 2

Figure 2 - Extract from post office annual report 2021/22

As you can see from the extract above from the Post Office’s Annual Report, this target was “achieved” and apparently had been confirmed by the Inquiry chairman - despite the Post Office failing to provide full disclosure on multiple occasions, resulting in significant additional cost and delays to the Inquiry. This was a lie, the evidence and information had not been supplied and the chairman did not provide confirmation. The Post Office had to apologise and the CEO repay part of his bonus. One has to wonder, how corrupt must leaders be to profit from their own failings?

Do your best, within reason, for your employer

Taking the integrity one point further, we all want to do the very best for our employer – it is after all what we are paid to do. But would you be prepared to go to prison for your employer? The judge who presided over the High Court case referred the behaviour of two Fujitsu employees to the Director of Public Prosecutions for potential perjury? Who on earth would lie on oath – an extremely serious crime?

Sometimes doing your best for your employer may actually mean refusing to carry out a task. Obvious examples would be lying, destroying evidence, falsifying information or paying bribes. There is a reason why the concept of whistle blowing exists. Whilst it may be understandable that people may be reticent to blow the whistle, that is very different from committing perjury.

I recall appearing as a witness of fact in a case relating to a regulatory dispute, representing T-Mobile UK, that appeared at the Competition Appeals Tribunal. I can assure you that when one takes an oath, one takes that extremely seriously. The preparation that goes into a witness statement is colossal[2]. Multiple meetings with lawyers and barristers, numerous drafts, checks and double checks. Mistakes simply do not creep into such things and if they do, they can only be minor and not fundamental.

When a leader apologies, they should know why they are apologising

Far too often we see politicians “apologise” for something only once they have been forced to do so. The same applies to business leaders too. Typically, these apologies use weasel words based around “regret” or “unfortunate” or “unintentional” and actually rarely convey sincerity. However, in this scandal Fujitsu take things to the next level.

On 17 January 2024, Fujitsu spoke in public for the first time in 25 years about their role in the Horizon scandal. Paul Patterson, the chief executive of Fujitsu’s operations in Europe addressed the Business and Trade Committee in the Houses of Parliament.

On a superficial level, the first few minutes Patterson went well. He did a decent job in handling this PR disaster. He recognised Fujitsu’s role in the scandal, confirmed their involvement, acknowledged the bugs in their system and their support of the Post Office in their prosecutions. So far so good. Sure, 25 years too late, but it sounded good. He even acknowledged that they did not meet their own ethical standards and stated that he was appalled by what he had seen in the ITV drama and in the witness statements.

At this point the obvious question was, surely he had been aware of these issues and the abyss that Fujitsu had entered long before a TV show? The cracks started to appear but it was to get worse…

Q: “Mr Patterson, you knew there were glitches in the system. Why did you sit back and do absolutely nothing about it?

A: I don’t know. I really don’t know and on a personal level I wish I did know. Following my appointment in 2019 I’ve looked back on those situations and the evidence I’ve seen and I just don’t know… I just don’t know.”

This scandal is Britain’s biggest miscarriage of justice. It must surely represent the nadir of Patterson’s career. He knew he would be the representative of Fujitsu to speak in public about this scandal. He knew he would be speaking in the Houses of Parliament.

Despite all of this, he couldn’t explain why he did absolutely nothing in the face of all the facts that were presented to him. He did “absolutely nothing”. This blog is about leadership. Patterson didn’t even show the leadership of a lamb in a flock of sheep. If a lamb could talk, it would be able to explain why it never leads and always follows its mother.

Value your customers and partners equally

I cannot finish this blog on leadership without referencing Alan Bates directly. If the Post Office is the villain in this story, then Alan Bates is the hero. However, before we get to him, allow me to first introduce an obvious principle.

It is self-evident that most businesses value their customers. Whilst some are better at it than others, the aspiration is commonly held. However, some businesses erroneously don’t take that approach with their business partners. Back when I was at T-Mobile UK, we were very proud that we had set up the world’s first MVNO, Virgin Mobile, as a 50:50 joint venture with the Virgin Group. Unfortunately, the relationship soured and litigation followed. T-Mobile lost the case, the judge heavily criticised our CEO and shortly afterwards Virgin bought out T-Mobile from the partnership. It would seem our partner hadn’t been properly treated as a partner.

Unlike the T-Mobile relationship above, the Post Office had all the power in their relationship with their SPMs. They were at risk of taking them for granted, possibly exploiting them and, even worse, forgetting just how important they were. In the case of a franchise, it is the franchisee that represents the brand to the end customer, to the extent that the customer probably has no idea that they are dealing with a third party rather than the brand themselves. To illustrate this point, can you tell whether you prefer a McDonald’s Big Mac or a McDonald’s franchisee’s Big Mac? Do you prefer staying in a Marriott owned hotel or a franchised Marriott hotel? The product is identical in each case.

As I mentioned earlier in this article, SPMs were in effect franchisees of the Post Office. For decades the Post Office took advantage of the SPMs, exploiting their overwhelming power. They got away with that for a long, long time. However, with enough victim SPMs, they eventually crossed the wrong person. The indomitable Alan Bates was just that person. Alan Bates would become the founder of the Justice for Sub-Postmasters Alliance, and it was he who secured litigation funding of almost £50m that ensured the Post Office’s downfall in the High Court and Court of Appeal. Alan Bates was the leader who literally brought the Post Office down to its knees.

By now you are probably thinking, what on earth did the Post Office do to Alan Bates? Bates invested over £60,000 of his own money into buying a sub-Post Office which he ran successfully. After the Post Office upgraded his accounting system to Horizon, Bates found it impossible to reconcile his accounts. With the inability to query the Horizon systems, Bates refused to sign off the accounts and refused to place disputed sums into suspense. Instead, he rolled forward the differences.

Bates’ Post Office account manager instructed him to either post the difference to suspense, or settle the difference, but Bates perceived each as accepting liability. Eventually the manager became frustrated and Bates was summarily dismissed, albeit avoiding any court case since the Post Office had nothing to charge him with. Bates lost his sub-Post Office, his livelihood and his investment. Unfortunately for the Post Office, they really had targeted the wrong person.

Remember, to any business, it isn’t just customers and employees who are critical. Partners, whether suppliers, agents or franchisees are all critical and must be valued. You never know, if you treat them badly they could end up bring your own business down! In case you are thinking that the Post Office didn’t treat Alan Bates fairly, you would be right. Not just ethically but, in the devastating judgement of the High Court, legally too. More of that in the next blog.

Over the coming weeks I will share more blogs related to the Post Office scandal, hopefully with some thought provoking insights, particularly for those of us working in telecommunications.

[1] “Venal. Incompetent. Mendacious.” https://www.postofficescandal.uk/post/venal-incompetent-mendacious/

[2] I will reference witness statements in a later blog when I refer to John Scott, the Post Office’s former Head of Security

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