Post Office scandal contains a number of warnings for public sector organisations - Dr Alan Billings

The Post Office scandal contains a number of warnings for many public sector organisations, including the police service. First, there is the matter of IT. The full story of what went wrong and why no one in a senior position in the Post Office picked this up, remains to be told.

But enough has been said to show the dangers that lurk wherever an organisation relies on IT that it commissions from an outside body and seems to have no internal expertise or form of governance capable of scrutinising what is happening.

Yet the police service is embarking all the time on a greater and greater use of and reliance on new technologies.

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Two weeks ago I wrote about developments in facial recognition technology and the use by the police of such extensive databases as driving licences and passports. If that technology has glitches the consequences could potentially be as devastating as those for sub postmasters and postmistresses.

A general view of a Post Office in London. PIC: Yui Mok/PA WireA general view of a Post Office in London. PIC: Yui Mok/PA Wire
A general view of a Post Office in London. PIC: Yui Mok/PA Wire

We need to look carefully at issues of governance but also at the question of internal expertise. This almost certainly means that the police will have to find ways of paying for highly skilled civilian staff with expert knowledge and experience in IT.

But they are people whose skills are in great demand in the commercial sector where they can command salaries that will not fit easily into police and other public sector pay scales.

And it will not only be a matter of recruiting such expertise, but of retaining it. This has been a headache for some time.

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The Post Office scandal shows the urgency and has brought it to the attention of politicians and the public. This is the moment to get this right.

The second warning that has come from the Post Office scandal is not new but shows how slowly some things change. Interestingly, this is a matter that began with policing, and policing in South Yorkshire. To be precise, it began with the Hillsborough disaster of 1989 and all that followed from it. As with the Post Office, that was a scandal that went on for decades and as with the Hillsborough families, the postmasters and postmistresses were up against what the former Bishop of Liverpool, James Jones, called ‘the patronising disposition of unaccountable power’.

People who had the power to make a difference but who, for whatever reason – and that will come out in the Inquiry – chose instead to look the other way.

There must surely have come a point where someone at the top of the organisation ‘heard’ what hard-working sub-postmasters were saying about the Horizon computer system and could no longer believe that they were employing so many crooks – yet they failed to act.

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An organisation needs people in positions of leadership at every level who will not just listen to what people are saying but also ask pertinent questions as a result of that and then take action.

For a number of years I kept a copy of the Bishop’s report on the Hillsborough football disaster, written in 2017, close at hand, looking from time to time at the list and ages of those who died. As I recall, the youngest were three 14 year olds and the oldest was 67. It was a way of reminding myself that ‘holding the police to account’ was a key part of my job description.

A shortened version of the Police and Crime Commissioner for South Yorkshire’s latest blog post.

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