Down ShEx – UKGI on heat (maps) and relish

Mark Russell being sworn in

Mark Russell has, in one form or another, been involved in the corporate governance of the Post Office from 2004 to today. He joined the government’s Shareholder Executive (ShEx) in 2004, became its CEO and then in 2014, when ShEx was absorbed into UK Government Investments (UKGI) he became CEO of that body until 2019 when he moved into a Senior Adviser and consultancy role.

Russell was ultimately responsible for examining the business risks facing the government-owned Post Office, and by his own admission today, both he and his organisation completely missed the Horizon scandal until it was far too late.

How? ShEx seemed to put a lot of faith in its regular risk-assessment summaries rendered via traffic light analyses (TLAs) and “heat maps” which supposedly alerted the organisation to problems. These documents were designed, in Russell’s curious choice of word for “socialisation” – that is sharing and discussion amongst his team.

They were certainly colourful. Here is a sexy ShEx heat map from February 2014.

A ShEx risk register heat map. Those with excellent eyes will see Post Office Ltd (POL) floating about near the top

Russell was a big fan.

“I remember when we introduced this, looking down our floor, we were all in one space, and seeing many of the screens with this on, and I thought, well, we’re doing our job here because people are engaging with this process… The aim of this was something that was very active. It wasn’t a passive process.”

Everyone was looking at the pretty colours, but no one was doing anything, because the data was useless. Or as Russell had it:

“I would maintain this was a good system, but it didn’t capture one of our biggest risks.”

The operation was a success, but the patient died.

Spell it out

At the same time ShEx was developing its internal infographic function, there was some hard information being produced in black and white. On 19 February 2014, ShEx’s Risk and Assurance Committee held a meeting. Russell attended to hear from Richard Callard, ShEx’s man on the Post Office Board. Much of the meeting (minuted over several paragraphs) was spent discussing how useless Paula Vennells was and how to deal with her, but matters soon turned to the risk register.

“The committee asked what Project Sparrow was”, noted the meeting minutes. Project Sparrow was the name the Post Office had given to its Complaint and Mediation Scheme for Subpostmasters which had been announced in August 2013. A member of Callard’s presentation team, Tim McInnes, stepped forward. His explantation is recorded in the minutes as follows:

“This is with regard to a financial system [Horizon] that is used by Subpostmasters, some of whom have received criminal convictions for misuse. However the Subpostmasters are suggesting that the actual system was at fault. All the POL [Post Office Ltd] investigations so far have shown that the system is working correctly. However, the risk is the that if this system were to show up as defective then potentially the criminal convictions could be overturned and compensation from POL sought.”

Emma Price, asking questions

At this point everyone present at the meeting seems to have shrugged their shoulders. The meeting concluded with five action points, three of which involved trying to improve or better measure Vennells’ competence, none of which related to Project Sparrow.

Emma Price, barrister for the Inquiry asked:

“Did you or anyone else at this meeting suggest at this stage that Project Sparrow and the issues raised there in response to the query should be raised specifically with the Shareholder Executive board?”
“I don’t think we did”, Russell replied.
“Can you help with why?” pushed Price.
“Well I think because we considered – and weren’t we wrong – we didn’t consider this to be a significant risk. I think it’s as simple as that.”

Putting aside the bizarre fact no-one on that ShEx committee had come across the Subpostmasters’ campaign for justice, (first reported five years previously in Computer Weekly, repeated by both Private Eye and the BBC and raised several times in Parliament), the Shareholder Executive Risk Committee had just been told that there was a project underway which might lead to miscarriages of justice being identified, with convictions potentially being overturned and all the financial implications which flow from that, and the corporate response was to do… nothing?!

Leftover relish

This crucial point was raised with Russell by Flora Page, barrister for several Subpostmasters. Page read out McInnes’ summary of Project Sparrow again. She invited Russell to agree it was “incisive”, lacking the usual “flummery”.

“It focuses very very tightly on the criminal convictions”, noted Page, repeating McInnes’ words: “If the system proves to be at fault then they may be overturned.”

Page told Russell that the risk being expressed “is that the organisation that you’re overseeing may have wrongfully convicted its trusted business partners and sent them to jail”.

Flora Page waits for a document to upload

Russell agreed it did. Page asked the obvious question about the committee’s lack of curiosity: “Why is nobody wondering about the possibility that postmasters have been sent to prison wrongly?”
“I think the answer to that is we had no idea of the scale of what was going on”, Russell replied.
“It doesn’t matter the scale, if one person has gone to prison wrongly”, responded Page, “that is a miscarriage of justice.”
“Yes, I completely agree with that, I completely agree with that”, said Russell, hurriedly. “I agree just one person being convicted wrongly is a matter of serious concern and I’d acknowledge that. I can’t remember the discussion, I was there, but that in itself I completely agree. We should have jumped on that.”

It remains all the more mystifying why no one did. At one point Emma Price asked directly:

“Did you ever feel a sense from within the Shareholder Executive, or from the [Business] department that it was too difficult to contemplate sub-postmasters being right, the consequences of that being too catastrophic?”
“Emphatically not!” returned Russell “Emphatically not. I’d go so far as to say I’d have relished, we would have relished uncovering this.”

But they blew their multiple chances to do so.

I don’t want to alarm you, but as well as the Post Office, UKGI is the body tasked with identifying and managing risk at the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, the UK’s Atomic Weapons Establishment and Sizewell C. Let’s hope they spot the next one coming down the tubes.

For a real-time gallop through the day and its documents, do have a look at the live tweets.


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12 responses to “Down ShEx – UKGI on heat (maps) and relish”

  1. Now you’ve got me REALLY worried, Sizewell C as well? Really?

  2. Quote, “I don’t want to alarm you, but as well as the Post Office, UKGI is the body tasked with identifying and managing risk at the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, the UK’s Atomic Weapons Establishment and Sizewell C.”

    Circa 2012, AWE lied to me about compliance with safety standards. Their predictable response was to provide the ammunition to shoot-the-messenger. Political mendacity is the associate of rampant incompetence.

  3. It was a classic, all those lovely coloured charts, with x reporting to y who reports to z, and its first real test and it fails miserably, once again the focus seemed to be on the commercial side of the PO, everything else was ignored.

  4. These insufferaable individuals take up these positions as there is no accountability. Had they supervised such a catastrophe in a private sector position they would have been fired. After this is concluded they will not be held criminally accountable as it was not me gov I was not told this or that by my underlings. All the while there were reports in various news outlets even on the BBC via Panorama in 2015. Pompous self serving individuals not fit for purpose but ill bet there are plenty more of them out there doing the exact same thing. There has to be a cull of these individuals who are an unnecessary expenditure on the public purse.

    1. Steve Elliott avatar

      well, I’m not convinced that if these ShEx people had ballsed up in a private company, they’d have been fired. Remember, these are the Glittering Elite of British business ( the next Chair was Chair of M&S, )so actually I think they screw up their own companies, but they just hide it.

  5. Our mandarins should remember the old Chinese proverb…

    A fall in a pit a gain in your wit.

    Unless you’re a twit that falls in the POL pit. You seem to lose even more wit in that pit.

    Some of the twits in the POL pit were the type of spiteful and vindictive characters you would associate with Roald Dahl’s book. Others are muggle-wumps or just chumps.

    The mandarins today came across as muddled thinkers. Not vindictive like we have seen from others, just career mandarins who were dazzled by a combination of brightly coloured traffic lights, heat maps and dashboards. Over reliance on Excel risk registers as a source of truth. Excelled at wrapping up a simple idea to make it appear extremely complicated.

    Never having the curiosity, inquisitive nature nor desire to investigate risk in the organisation’s environment. A computer system that was being described as robust? Really!

    People, process, technology. The facts and clues were out there.
    Computer Weekly, Private Eye, Panorama, our Nick, Select committee, MPs questions. Why not ask the glaringly obvious questions themselves? Was it because the issues raised do not fit as neatly on a spreadsheet as a traffic light?

    I was first involved in designing dashboards back in the late 80’s when you could download information from an IBM mainframe to Lotus 1-2-3 and then then chart in Freelance on an IBM PC.

    By the late 90’s the software had advanced to enable the key indicators or drivers of an organisation to be displayed on screen. Six key indicators was the magic number. Each indicator having layers of additional information that could be accessed and investigated. Data driven but still subject to caveats around subjective coding by employees. Multi-dimensional but easily understood.

    Risk registers on the other hand, especially on Excel, can register organisational bias rather than objective analysis of risk. In my experience the Excel sheets are often printed for meetings, first in A4 monochrome then in A3 colour, then used to confirm and give the stamp of approval to conventional wisdom. Relatively small points discussed at length. Big issues glossed over. Two-dimensional and easily misunderstood and manipulated. Sound familiar?

    Crisis, what crisis? Framework, what framework? Justice, what justice?
    Organisations are defined by the performance and behaviour they are willing to amplify. POL was fire fighting rather than investigating root causes of the fires, no framework existed as to how the organisation should be operating and controlled within its environment. This was evident when throwing taxpayers money at the expensive lawyers. Amplifying confrontation against the little skint little people. No framework as reference. What should the mandarins do?

    If red light spells danger what action should they take? Picking up the phone and talking to the people involved is better than a hundred traffic lights and a thousand emails.

    It’s all about the culture? Really? Don’t waste time trying to change culture. You can change the environment overnight by understanding problems and trying to resolve them at source.

    The Deep dive? Isn’t that a tourist attraction in Janet Skinner’s home city? A heat map in Whitehall would never shows the depths POL plunged to there. If only ‘think for a minute’ had been on the dashboard playlist.

    On my personal dashboard it now shows London 0 Hull 4. Skinner skins Mandarins every time in this match. I’m just sorry that I can’t make the Otley event. Happy hour elsewhere I’m afraid.

    Back to the sheep, or their counters…

    Surely it’s all about the organisation in its environment? How does it interact with its stakeholders? The Government, its employees, its customers? Frameworks, tramlines, Critical Path Analysis, SWOT?

    The Horizon system, a weakness and a threat?

    Occam’s Razor was the opportunity?

    A modern day Friar William of Ockham, working from the comfort of his monastery on a laptop may have pointed out…

    ‘Suppose an event has two possible explanations. The explanation that requires the fewest assumptions is usually correct.

    Another way of saying it is that the more assumptions you have to make, the more unlikely an explanation.’

    Did anyone truly believe in the infallibility of a computer system? One in the public sector at that? You would have to assume so many assumptions that it would make an ass of you and me.

    Only twits, academics and mandarins can turn a theory of simplicity into complexity. Management by ASS.

    I prefer management by KISS…

    Keep It Simple Stupid.

    If you fall into a pit, stop digging.

  6. Graham Thorpe avatar

    So once again we have a prime example of Robert Conquest’s Third Law (“The simplest way to explain the behaviour of any bureaucratic organisation is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies”).
    That’s clearly the P.O. in a nutshell, but it also helps explain the behaviour of all the gravy-train-level of grey placemen tasked with the P.O.’s oversight. The focus of these people (we learn) was on their own organisation and their charts, graphs and reports. You could have brought in a convicted sub-postmaster in chains to one of their meetings and they would have shrugged and gone to lunch.

  7. […] and centred at ShEx/UKGI board meetings. He turned to a September 2014 heat map – something favoured by the organisation in the middle of the last decade. Stevens told the Inquiry that the Post Office’s risk profile was marked as Red/Amber, and, […]

  8. A complete Govt wet…..God help us if these goons are responsible for other Govt investments.
    Produced a load of incomplete gibberish and lacked any tenacity to search for the right questions.
    Again another untouchable civil servant looking for a CBE or more.

  9. I was put off Russell from the start by his uncanny resemblance to Rupert Murdoch and he soon alienated me further with his arrogance, indifference and sheer incompetence. Apart from getting to the truth about the tragedy of the miscarriages of Justice, the Inquiry is an interesting and terrifying insight into the operations and activities of a range of people in high places at a legal, executive and board level. ShEx and UKGI were a joke. They spent all their time having meetings which showed off the latest in American management speak – at this time ‘traffic lights’ and ‘heat maps’ which demonstrated the appeal of pretty colours. Howver they failed completely to investigate anything or provide any oversight at all. Let’s hope the new UK government get’s rid of them.

  10. ‘Russell did not come across too badly’. An insidious double neg crept in.

  11. By comparison with many of the egregious types at the ‘top’ layer of this scandal, Russell did not come across not too badly, even if he had invented a completely new meaning for the verb ‘to socialise’. Despite having ShEx/UKGI reps on the PO Board, both he and Swannell were clearly deliberately starved of information by the likes of Davies, Vennells, Perkins, Parker and Parsons. However, what is obvious when you come across people like Russell and Swannell in the cold light of day is that there is a small network of well-connected establishment figures who manage to collect part-time Chair and CEO roles as if they are Panini stickers. How on earth can they have the time to properly get to grips with these important roles?

    In the afternoon Swannell kept coming back to the importance of culture, but the culture of the establishment is very much to keep things WITHIN the establishment. That’s one of important ways in which this charmed circle retain power and influence and preserve the status quo. Recommendations need to include bringing in meaningful representation from the grass roots of these organisations. Not, may I add, the sort of ‘representation’ provided by the charmless moron George Thomson.

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