A TV series starring Toby Jones (Mr Bates vs The Post Office) is now introducing a big audience to the appalling Post Office Horizon Scandal, and reminding us that human stories are much more powerful triggers for change than facts alone. The series has already prompted a flurry of very overdue activity – from the government, the Met Police and others and hopefully justice will speed up
I had a small part to play in this story, in 1998-99, when I worked in Downing Street. Last year my various memos to the Prime Minister on Horizon were published and I gave evidence to the public inquiry which is ongoing. My questioning is online here and I wrote a blog last year attempting some reflections.
These memos included my warnings that the system was seriously flawed and my recommendations to cancel it (a thorough synthesis of the material has been pulled together by Eleanor Shaikh). This was only a very small part of my job at the time, and I don't pretend that I had a complete picture of what was happening. But it was obvious that poor decisions were being made and that the processes for making them were far from optimal.
So although the media coverage has rightly focused on justice for the many sub-postmasters who were treated so incredibly badly by the Post Office, there are also important lessons to be learned about government processes. The crucial failures to act happened under the Coalition government, after 2010. But there are also important lessons about what went wrong much earlier and these are particularly important at a moment when we may be swinging from excessive scepticism about government capability in relation to technology, to excessive enthusiasm.
As the Horizon story shows, although governments can be crucial providers of funding for upstream science and technology, and can play a vital role in procurement, they aren't usually good at operational decisions on the boundaries of business, technology and public policy. It's no coincidence that the most successful public technology organisations - such as NASA - are kept very much at arms length from government. A big risk for future governments in the UK is that ministers will be pulled into complex decisions that they simply lack the capacity to make.
In May 1999, just before the final decision was made on what became the Horizon technology, I wrote a short minute to the Prime Minister and Cabinet Secretary on the key lessons to be learned and recommended a much more in-depth review. This never happened. Perhaps it might now. My note included the following points:
‘By most criteria Horizon has been a fairly disastrous project. It: - was misconceived from the start - has faced continual delays and problems - has over the last year taken up huge amounts of ministerial and official time - has delivered in the end a far from optimal solution’.
‘Fall-backs: In the case of any large project of this kind it is essential to prepare serious fall-back options. Although, following No 10 prompting, some work on fall-backs was done last autumn, no further fall-backs were subsequently developed.... the government was therefore pushed into negotiations over an alternative option on which very little detailed work or costing has been done’.
‘Commercial freedoms: it will always be hard to give public enterprises true commercial freedom. But it cannot be right for ministers and generalist officials and advisors to have to make decisions about extremely complicated commercial and technological strategies’.
‘Information: nearly all the facts presented to ministers turned out to be unreliable. Moreover data was presented in ways that were difficult for ministers to understand’.
‘The Post Office. Throughout this process the relative lack of competence of the Post Office and their failure to develop a proper business strategy has been a key failing’.
‘Courage. Perhaps the most important lesson is a more general one: namely that when a project is clearly failing government needs to be bolder about cutting its losses, and tougher in its negotiating stance. There was a clear case for termination 12 months ago, although the Treasury and DTI favoured continuation. In effect, inertia led to continuation, since no-one at the centre had a sufficiently clear remit or reason to terminate’.
‘If ministers cannot reach agreement on a project with public spending implications, it is vital that at an early stage the Prime Minister and Chancellor set the parameters for reaching a decision. The worst possible outcome is for the PM and Chancellor to become involved at the very last moment without having had time to master the issues’.
A quarter of a century ago it was clear that Horizon was an accident waiting to happen. Its flaws then went on to ruin hundreds of lives. The Post Office deserves much of the blame - but government needs to learn hard lessons and own up to its responsibilities too.