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"FA Cup Final" of UK PO Inquiry - by Simon Ferrari

It's not beautiful but it appears to have been a game (for some).

For antipodeans like me, living on the British Empire-colonised islands of the South Pacific, this coming week represents the 'FA Cup Final' of the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry.

As the inquiry heads into Week 7 of Phase 5 and 6, the UK Post Office's Chief Executive (2012 to 2019), Paula Vennells, will take the stand for three inquiry-unprecedented days of questioning.

This will be the first time she has publicly spoken of the 25 year Horizon debacle since Tuesday 3 February 2015.

The one night, once-a-year FA Cup Final extravaganzas — which typically kick-off (for us Down Under) at 2:00am on cold autumnal mornings, and see us tucked up warmly in bed once again by 4:00am — are easy to get (or, in some crazy cases, stay) up for. 

As a kid, the promise of cracking footie, a hot cup of Milo and some quality bonding time with Dad in the haze of the night was enough to close the alarming, mid-sleep-disrupting deal for me.

But this Wednesday night, from 8:48pm (NZ time, on a three minute delay), instead of a beautiful game, the Chief Executive of the worst-hot-mess-in-a-dumpster-fire-of-a-train-wreck since Enron's 2001 bankruptcy will take the inquiry stand to provide her witness testimony.

Unlike the FA Cup Final, this ugly game will see a) no jubilant celebration by any of the parties at the final whistle, and b) a lot more than 90 minutes of game time.

Instead, there will be 12 hours of excruciating testimony over three late nights from Vennells, which, if based on form from the 'pool games', I predict will see a game plan that includes:

  • "I was lead to believe..."

  • "There was a lot going on at the time, mutulisation, cost-savings pressures..."

  • "I relied upon others..."

  • "In hindsight..."

  • "That is what I was told..."

  • and my favourite "I don't recall!"

I would be shocked if Vennells relied on phrases such as "I don't know" like one useful idiot did to great effect, or "I was just a postbox" as oozed out of another senior legal protagonist in this saga like mucilage.

Incredibly, those two professionals decided that it is better to appear like muppets in roles that were beyond their abilities in front of the inquiry than to admit their part in the greatest corporate crime (since Enron) against decent people, common sense, best practice, sensible judgement, good decisions, logic and basic principles (and obligations) of justice.

Then there was the bumptious Kings Counsel whose Inquiry answers and non-answers were largely hubris-filled pontification. 

I've followed the daily interviews closely, having read Nick Wallis' outstanding exposé and writing my first impressions of it one month ago. The word 'game' fits well in describing this sorry saga and the Inquiry that is exposing it. 

The interviewers and interviewees have ducked and dived, surged forward and retreated, attacked and parried, dummied and side-stepped like athletes at the peak of their game.

So how did it all come to this?

It would be easy to form a lynch mob and seek Paula Vennells' head on a pole. I hope this doesn't happen. It's not all down to one person.

There's no doubting Vennells' party lines were "We can continue to have confidence in the Horizon system" and we have "absolute confidence in the robustness and integrity in the Horizon IT system". 

And she can't deny the spin-doctoring banality of her words (quoted here) from what must have been some riveting pillow talk, when she consulted her "engineer/computer literate husband" to seek and propose "a non-emotive word for computer bugs, glitches, defects that happen as a matter of course", settling on her husband's best engineering spin "Exception or anomaly".

You're talking about a bloody defect folks. Let's not be afraid to call a defect a defect!

Yes, it'd be easy and relieving to vilify one individual in this whole incredible debacle, for her word-for-slippery-word last public performance at the February 2015 Business, Innovation and Skills Committee (at the peak of the cover-up), as well as for her seven year leadership role steering the hot mess. Vennells must be held to account.

However, the book, the story, the interviews, the articles, the commentary; they all point to one recurring and over-arching problem the UK Post Office suffered from (and still does?): A Toxic Culture. 

And how far Vennells, the Board, the Senior Leadership, the context and the establishment contributed to the culture is for those of us in the global virtual stadium to decide.

Symptoms of Post Office's Cultural Toxicity

So many pointers to a toxic culture are evident in the witness statements, the testimony and in the emails and documents being presented as part of the inquiry. The key symptoms must be:

  • Lack of organisational values - I struggled to find any from 1999 to 2015, and behaviours suggest (like Enron with their value of 'Integrity') they would likely ignore any values that requires them to 'Do the right thing'.

  • Absence of ethics - where were those with morals?

  • Vacuum of Integrity - Vennells now famously known as complaining about Susan Crighton in a meeting note by saying she "was possibly more loyal to her professional conduct requirements and put her integrity as a lawyer above the interests of the business".

  • Unquestioned and unwavering belief in Horizon - why, I still cant work out (stuck on a death march as I suggest under 'The Contract' here, is all I can surmise).

  • Holding the same, false party line, for years - "the system is robust and has no <ahem> anomalies".

  • Lack of investigation - "guilty unless proven innocent (by someone else and without the digital evidence)".

  • Non-disclosure - "the effort to produce the requested documents outweighs their value" and "they'll hate it but let's delay release until we sense the criticism is becoming serious" [Note: Along with FA Cup Finals, I grew up on 'The Wombles', and it disappoints me that some of those characters' descendants may have contributed to this scandal!]

  • Shredding advice - issued by UK PO Head of Security, who should have known better.

  • Excessive spinning - too much effort was consumed "making things look better", not enough on getting to the truth or acting with integrity.

  • Groupthink - everyone tows the line and no one is brave enough to speak out (also talks to a bully culture).

  • Superposition of Dunning-Kruger Effect and Peter Principle - over-confidence of the incompetent (ref Nick Wallis).

  • Pigeonholing - "that's not my job, so I'll just ignore that".

  • Cliques - You're either on the bus or off it (Susan Crichton and Lesley Sewell were "on" until they were abruptly and unceremoniously "off").

  • Bizarre "Public Purpose" - makes me wonder what the private purpose was!

  • Forgetting your customers - the Sub-Postmaster were Post Office agents. When it came to Horizon, they were the customer and they were the front desk of the organisation. Instead they took a "self-serving" approach exploiting an "imbalance of power and information" and a "skewed contract". These were words from the one Phase 5 & 6 witness that has shown an ounce (or gram in NZ) of honest, self-reflection. 

So Where To From Here? 

Well, it really is anyone's guess. 

The game will play out over more than just Vennells' three days in the spotlight.

The players have been ducking, weaving, slipping, fake-diving and crying, and they'll continue to for some time to come. It's quite baffling how senior leaders of an organisation have been downplaying their role, responsibilities, their accountabilities and their memories from this time.

The inquiry will likely draw to a close before the end of 2024. The recommendations will surely look at changing the UK Post Office and UK Law to ensure lessons are learnt and actions become Acts that prevent anything like this travesty of justice from being repeated.

The legal profession will never be the same. Not in the eyes of Sub-Postmaters, nor in the eyes of any from public who have followed this sorry saga.

Those seniors with poor memories and post-box-like functions will no doubt have their day in civil or criminal courts in the years ahead.

Ultimately, any decent human will hope for and look forward to the day that the decent humans wronged by this toxic culture and the people who sustained it are compensated (whatever that can actually, meaningfully look like) appropriately.

Bring on the Final (and then justice)!

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