Bridging International

If the media couldn’t shine a proper light on this story, it was going to keep happening. 

—Nick Wallis, BBC journalist, author of The Great Post Office Scandal

The following true story is so extreme that it is seems like hyperbole—a parable describing something worse than anything that happens in real life. Yet it effectively illustrates what can happen to an organization when recurring allegations of harm are concealed instead of using detached guides to assess the situation: an outsider is bound to come along and shine a light, exposing organizational behaviors, culture, consequences, and where to assign responsibility. This cautionary tale speaks to many sectors of society, including faith affiliations and charities. Let’s begin.

A recent series of reports from the UK that the BBC called “The Great Post Office Scandal”[1] poignantly demonstrates how a noble organization’s structure can undermine its legitimate purpose. Between 2000 and 2014 the Post Office Ltd. wrongly prosecuted 736 Post Office workers for theft or false accounting. In April 2021, the Court of Appeal overturned criminal convictions for theft and false accounting of thirty-nine former postmasters, and the payouts have just begun for well over 500 former employees. Pay close attention, because this contemporary vignette vividly illustrates what is wrong with top-down, siloed organizations where information and decisions are secluded in poorly designed structures.

The multinational postal and courier service was originally established in 1516 as a department of the English government. By 1683 it had its own prosecution department for the purposes of combatting highwaymen. Over the centuries the institution underwent many changes and innovations in service. In 1969 the service transitioned from a government department to a separate entity, though keeping its own legal prosecutors.

In 1999 the Post Office paid Fujitsu of Japan to install a computer system called Horizon IT to replace their largely paper-based system for recording stock and transactions, which would improve the tasks of postmasters. Not long after the installation, some of the postmasters began to report shortfalls that could not be accounted for—in the thousands and tens of thousands of pounds. The Post Office blamed the postmasters and held them responsible to repay losses or they would be prosecuted by the in-house justice system.

One such individual was sub-postmistress Seema Mistra from Surrey who was sentenced for 25 months in prison in 2010 over a discrepancy of £74,000. She later said, “It’s hard to say but I think that if I had not been pregnant, I would have killed myself.”[2] The press called her a “pregnant thief” and locals beat up Seema’s husband Davinder. But did the Post Office did not consider whether the computer system was to blame for the great damage being done. In the end there were imprisonments, serious debts, bankruptcies, ruined marriages, addictions, serious health conditions, suicides and other premature deaths.

The Post Office prosecutors led the organization into tunnel vision, singularly focused on retrieving money and constantly and defensively emphasizing how robust the Horizon system was. The leadership never stopped to wonder why over seven hundred previously reliable and law-abiding individuals became thieves, beginning shortly after a new system was installed. To make matters worse, they kept the knowledge of this inconceivable number of supposed violations to themselves. This meant that each alleged theft was treated as if it were the only case.

Almost immediately, in 2000, problems with the Horizon software emerged, whereby one postmaster, Alan Bates, was on the hook for a mysterious shortfall of more than 6000 pounds. By 2003 this matter was not reconciled, and his contract was terminated. Suspecting that he was not the only victim, Bates launched a website that helped him discover dozens of others. However, it had no effect in bringing about an inquiry that would lead to justice. But years later things changed when an investigative reporter got involved.

In November 2010, Nick Wallis, a journalist for a local BBC radio station, used Twitter to ask if taxi drivers “had any good stories to tell.” He received an interesting reply from the owner of a taxi firm, Davinder Misra, who told him his pregnant wife, Seema, had been sent to prison for a crime she did not commit. Wallis immediately began looking into the matter and discovered that Seema was not the only victim of something horribly wrong. He eventually recorded interviews with dozens of victims, insiders, and experts, uncovering hundreds of documents to build up an unparalleled understanding of the Horizon IT and Post Office cover up. Nick Wallis was instrumental in using an integrative report to bring what became The Great Post Office Scandal into the public eye, empowering victims to take on vested bureaucratic interests.

Despite the long history, size, and power of the UK Post Office, Fuijitu’s defective software exposed a lamentable leadership culture led by an indefensible relic of the past—internal prosecutors. By having the power to prosecute since the late 1600s the Post Office was both the victim and the investigator, a clear conflict of interest. These prosecutorial players were offended by the shortfalls, and instead of eliminating the Horizon system as a potential contributing factor, which is what objective investigation would do, they targeted sub-postmasters.[3] By not questioning their assumptions and playing judge, victim, and jury, they created a culture of blame.

In 2012, Paula Vennells, an ordained priest, had been appointed Chief Executive of the Post Office. Shockingly, despite her seminary training, However, she maintained the status quo, upholding the position that there was no fault in the Horizon system. In 2019 Vennells resigned and walked away with a large severance, but she avoided being defrocked by leaving the priesthood. Neither Vennells, her predecessors, nor Fujitsu have ever offered unreserved apologies. The scandal is described as “the most widespread, known miscarriage of justice in the UK.”[4]

The government, as in the taxpayers, stepped in to help the Post Office pay out as much as 350 million pounds in compensation and legal fees. The greatest costs for keeping the reported failures out of the spotlight is immeasurable in damages to individuals and families. And, of course, the Post Office has lost the public trust. This scandal is a warning for all organizational structures when the appropriate systems for objectively mitigating risk and reporting complaints are broken, corrupt, or altogether nonexistent. And it clearly highlights the need for open systems and widely distributed knowledge. Treating systemic issues as one-offs is a recipe for disaster.

The whole matter could have been solved much earlier if the Post Office or Horizon IT organizations had initiated independent investigations. Even though it took years for the full matter to see the light of day and for an intervention to occur, the day of reckoning came because of a highly acclaimed publicized critical assessment from someone who had no pony in the race.

I was a systems engineer from 1981 to 1988, and I followed the BBC story through podcasts and news articles after dear friends in London pointed me in its direction. I’m convinced that a series of arduous real-world simulations overseen by independent contractors would have easily exposed the technical issues, but the lack of disclosure of known software problems from Fujitsu, along with the culture of secrecy and heavy-handed control in the UK Post Office, kept insiders from pursuing a root-cause analysis. Nick Wallis was right: “proper light” was needed or the institutional defect “was going to keep happening.” A day of reckoning came, and it illustrated how accumulated experiences, integrated into a reasonable and believable narrative, provided appropriate light on the organization.

The story also demonstrates the power that former employees and their loved ones have over the reputations of organizations. The link between culture and reputation applies to many enterprises, including congregations. Like leaders of pervasively troubled companies, representatives of distressed congregations can be tempted to repeatedly blame downward in an attempt to control the narrative of their predicament—“John was never a good fit to begin with,” “Mary has a lot of personal issues,” and “We personally looked into Bob’s concerns and found that he tends to exaggerate.” While there will always be more than one side to the story of a single failed relationship, and some one-off complaints turn out to be erroneous, it does no good to overlook consistent concerns relayed by former members and outspoken current members.

If nothing else was learned from reports on the scandal, twenty years in the making, that wrecked the lives or livelihoods of hundreds of innocent people, the accumulation of similar unfavorable experiences can make for a believable and compelling account. Like nectar to bees, stories of longstanding allegations of harm are relished by activists, journalists, and watchdog groups, including those who are responsible and helpful, and those who aren’t.

Of course, there is also a connection between the increase of good experiences in a healthy company or church and its consequent reputation. When leaders listen to really hear and concerns are investigated with curiosity, when systemic issues are discussed openly, conflicts are resolved quickly, and ideas are embraced on their merit, not based on who proposed them, the organization will achieve a higher social (and possibly spiritual) capital.

The irony in all this is that officials who are the first to jump on issues and appropriately shine a light on them will gain even more trust and enthusiastic support than before there was a known problem. That’s because people tend to value authenticity in their leaders, which becomes more apparent in the way they handle high-stakes moments than when things are going as planned.

[1] The award-winning series The Great Post Office Scandal was released on BBC Radio 4, documenting what is considered by some to be the largest miscarriage of justice in UK legal history. The 12-episode podcast is available here: The Great Post Office Trial.


[3] The terms postmaster and sub-postmaster are increasingly used interchangeably in the UK and describe the same job.