Lessons to learn from Mr Bates vs The Post Office

8 Apr 24

The culture set by leaders can drive the wrong behaviour and poor decision-making, writes Iain Murray.

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Like many of us, I spent the start of 2024 watching Mr Bates vs The Post Office. I spent the four episodes alternating between white-knuckled anger and open-mouthed head-shaking at the injustice and incompetence portrayed. Stories with such profound human impact can shift the pervading mood and galvanise public opinion in a way that never ceases to amaze. Particularly when those stories are about injustices perpetrated by national institutions.

I have also been following the recently reported independent review into Teesworks. While the report generated some mainstream media attention, it has not had legs in the same way as the Post Office scandal. Perhaps this is because of the lack of a smoking gun and a TV mini-series. Although I suspect there are many questions yet unanswered and would rule out neither.


The final piece of the puzzle for me came with the events played out at several local authorities over the past 18 months. These events have thrown shade on the activities of the sector and, in particular, the way in which decisions were made in several places. One would be forgiven for wondering if these events point to deep-seated issues plaguing public services and governance. Inevitably, they do. They also pose fundamental questions surrounding culture, and how this drives behaviour and poor decision-making.

In all the cases above, the motives behind the decisions were positive. The Horizon system was meant to modernise operations and make subpostmasters’ lives easier. Teesside freeport seeks job creation and regional development in an area that is grappling with industrial change and economic downturn.

This leaves me asking why these well-intentioned schemes go wrong. Part of the answer lies in structure and process. Clarity on reporting lines and accountability can provide an organisation with a roadmap for effective decision-making, with each element performing a key role. Strong accountability also includes effective scrutiny and oversight at the point of decision-making and, more importantly, throughout the life of a project or scheme. Some see this as an unnecessary box-ticking exercise and inefficient red tape, but the flipside remains. Being complacent about how you set out to scrutinise and make decisions is a guaranteed route to failure.


Regardless of the structures in place, culture is the cornerstone of effective governance. It is not so much about ‘what we do here’ as ‘the way we do it’. You can follow all the process you like, but if it isn’t executed in an honest and open-minded way, the outcomes will not be the right ones.

To err is human. At the heart of these failures is not that something went wrong but a lack of transparency and unwillingness to acknowledge failures and act appropriately on them. This is how bad situations get worse.

There are many lessons to be learnt from these high-profile examples of failure, and we should all have a long, hard look in the governance mirror. As well as ruined lives and missed opportunities, such failures undermine the trust and legitimacy of our public institutions. This, in turn, undermines their central purpose – to serve and meet the needs of citizens.

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