14 days ago

All our eyes on the disgraceful Horizon

Link: http://demandingchange.blogspot.com/2024/06/all-our-eyes-on-disgraceful-horizon.html

The scandal at the British Post Office, details of which are now emerging in the Public Enquiry, provides illustrations of many important aspects of organizational behaviour as discussed on this blog. 

Willful blindness. There is a strong attachment to a false theory, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, as well as the appalling human consequences.

Misplaced trust. Trusting a computer system (Horizon) above hundreds of ordinary people. And both the legal system and government ministers trusting the evidence presented by a public corporation, despite the fact that contrary evidence from expert witnesses had been accepted in a small number of cases (see below).

Defensive denial as one of the symptoms of organizational stupidity. In July 2013, Post Office boss Paula Vennells was told about faults in the Horizon system, and advised that denying these would be dangerous and stupid. This is something the Post Office had denied for years. ITV March 2024

A detail that struck me yesterday was a failure to connect the dots. In 2011, the auditors (EY) raised concerns about data quality, warning that if Horizon was not accurate, then they would not be able to sign off Post Office company accounts. Ms Perkins, who was giving evidence at an inquiry into the scandal, said at the time she did not make a link between the two. BBC June 2024. The pattern I’m seeing here is of assuming the sole purpose of audit as satisfying some regulatory requirement, with zero operational (let alone ethical) implications of anything the auditors might find. And assuming the regulatory requirement itself to have no real purpose, being merely a stupid and meaningless piece of bureaucracy.

Another failure to connect the dots occurred after Julie Wolstenholme successfully challenged the Post Office in 2003 with the aid of an expert technical witness. Why didn’t this prompt serious questions about all the other cases? When asked about this at the enquiry, David Mills said he had not properly assimilated the information and pleaded lack of intelligence, saying I wasn’t that clever. I’m sorry, I didn’t ask about it. ITV April 2024

In my other pieces about organizational intelligence, I have noted that stupid organizations may sometimes be composed of highly intelligent people. Now that’s one pattern the Post Office doesn’t seem to illustrate. Or have the Post Office bosses merely chosen to present themselves as naive and incompetent rather than evil?

Tom Espiner, Ex-Post Office chair was told of IT risks in 2011 (BBC 5 June 2024)

ITV, Secret tape shows Paula Vennells was told about problems with Horizon and warned not to cover it up (29 March 2024)

ITV, Former Post Office boss tells inquiry he was not ‘clever’ enough to question Horizon IT system (16 April 2024)

Other Sources: Post Office Horizon IT Enquiry, British Post Office scandal (Wikipedia), Post Office Project (University of Exeter)