By Alistair McIntosh, HQN CEO

If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. Why does no one ever follow that advice? A year or so ago I was on the train and got talking to someone who used to be senior at the Post Office. “Don’t believe a word of what you hear, those sub-postmasters were stealing,” she said. To check out her story I bought The Great Post Office Scandal: The fight to expose a multimillion pound IT disaster which put innocent people in jail by Nick Wallis. That book is the basis for the ‘Mr. Bates Vs the Post Office’ drama. It’s compelling.

The top team at the Post Office had so many chances to wipe the slate clean and start again. If they did that, no one would have gone to prison. And Paula Vennells, the ex-chief of the Post Office, would still have her CBE.

So, why did the leaders hunker down? Well, the board of the Post Office included big stars from the City. Therein we may find a clue. The board would pass all the intelligence tests we set for top jobs. But that can be a weakness rather than a strength. According to science journalist David Robson “intelligent and educated people are less likely to learn from their mistakes…or to take advice from others. And when they do err, they are better able to build elaborate arguments to justify their reasoning…”. That rings a bell in housing, doesn’t it? Some boards think they’re right while the ombudsman, Regulator of Social Housing and anyone else you care to mention are all wrong. It’s taken ITV to shake up housing as well as the Post Office.

Many of us are asking how Paula Vennells stayed in her job and also secured other high-profile board roles. Well, I watched her TED talk on YouTube where she was chillingly plausible. Vennells was well prepared, there was a clear structure and some nice homilies to round it off. I could picture her chairing an association board or as the keynote speaker at a housing conference. On the basis of that video, she’d get a lot of jobs. Her final quote was “be curious, be persistent, and when you do it, do it for the greater good”. She’s not the first or last of us to fail to follow our own wise counsel.

Housing has had its fair share of leaders who sounded good at the time, just like Paula Vennells. But after they left, someone else has to pick up the pieces. The interesting thing is that staff always knew about the problems. They told their bosses that the new IT didn’t work, that developments were shoddy while existing homes were crumbling and that pet projects were burning cash. Are too many of our chairs and chiefs as tin eared as Paula Vennells?

How do we stop anything like this happening in housing again? The short answer is that you can’t. But we must at least try.

First of all, we need to stop worshipping the governance gurus. After every fiasco, the Institute of Directors and Chartered Governance Institute bang out their same old press releases about boards failing to ask the right questions. They will be firing these out for years to come. Their answer to poor governance is more governance! The classic New Year hair of the dog.

When you look at the never-ending packs many boards get it’s a miracle that board members stay awake, never mind ask any questions at all. Why does no one ever get their board papers edited? The quality of decision-making would soar if they did that.

Boards must include a wider range of voices. On the TV news I notice that many of the wrongly accused sub-postmasters are black and brown. Would a more diverse board at the Post Office have spotted this? So many cases in housing involve black and brown people living in misery. Could a sharper and more diverse range of leaders nip this in the bud? In her TED talk Paula Vennells strikes a patronising and remote note at times. She’s astonished at the lengths people go to make sure their shopping trolleys don’t get pinched while they wait at post offices. We need folk from the university of hard knocks on our boards.

At the same time, we also need access to stellar technical experts. Horizon was a botched IT project. We see plenty of these in housing too and it’s costing us a fortune. As one housing board member remarked: “There’s no one on this board who can say whether this is a good IT strategy or not.” It’s not hard to work out what happens next.

The Post Office and housing are desperate to get better IT. Why? A big part of the answer is that it should save money. Thrashing around trying to raise cash and cut costs leads to lots of problems. Why is it too much to ask to put public services on a sound footing? Paula Vennells was quick to blame the government cuts for everything. Many of our folk do the same, with some justice.

Finally, does switching leaders in and of itself make things better? Everywhere you go you hear calls to sack the board and/or the boss. When you sign up for a top job that goes with the territory. But how much of a difference do leaders really make? In ‘Managing without Leadership’, Gabriele Lakomski finds that “…organisational life is messy and complex and that those in positions of leadership are neither omniscient nor infallible”. So, she calls for a “bottom-up” approach not just a “top-down” one. If you do find yourself in a position of power, you’ll learn a lot more by talking to staff and tenants than you ever will in a boardroom. Unless the current model of governance in the UK starts to deliver, it won’t last.