Horizon Scandal, IT systems and the honors system

This is another meta reflection that I want to share. This is relating the the Horizon IT system or the Post Office scandal. I must admit I have not followed all the details here but what strikes me as surprising is the timing that this scandal is being brought to light.

Well, not quite brought to light? More: brought to the public attention. The scandal has been well known for many years.

A malign interpretation is the following: there will be significant structural change in some of the service sectors going forward due to the technology shock and due to AI. The candidates are obvious and this has been clear for many years.

Making tax digital, automation of processes — all of this will be much easier going forward with a new way that humans interact with ICT and the internet. Less frictions in the flow of information and data invariably will mean that some of the traditional sectors that mediate the relationships between citizens, firms and the state will see their business models change drastically.

Shedding light or doubt on the pitfalls of software and automated solutions is something that may benefit these traditional service sectors in slowing the adjustment. Casting doubt is always been the strategy of choice. And here is a terrible example of a miscarriage of justice due to buggy software solutions that politics chose to ignore for years. But maybe now it comes in handy? This is the malign or special interest group view of this.

Outsourced software or buggy data flows have been a feature in the pandemic. I am yet to hear what or if anything will come of the Excel spreadsheet data transmission error that affected contact tracing during the pandemic. Unlike Eat-out-to-help-out this has so far, as far as I can tell, not been the subject of the public inquiry. My FOI requests on the subject have, not surprisingly, been blocked.

An alternative, less malign interpretation is the following. We are talking here about an electronic payment system or bookkeeping system that has gone awry or was not fit for service. Software solutions to facilitate bookkeeping and the payment of tax should, in my view, be viewed as public infrastructure, just like we think of roads, public transportation or the grid. Such public infrastructure should either be publicly owned or be under (very) tight competent supervision.

Software and many software providers have strong incentives to create “moats”. To sell the same product over and over again. To limit scale and to limit interoperability. The Horizon scandal highlights that closed systems are a liability and limited liability of companies either creates perverse incentives (strip-and-run) or throw lawyers at the problem and ignore, hiding behind privacy or IP protection. With public code or open source code the errors would have been detected far faster.

This is where software as a service comes in and this is where the public sector, universities and third sector players can and should step to help build that public infrastructure. My understanding is that presently, what much of the University ecosystem is doing — but not much beyond the public utility scale level that is needed.

Lastly, the honors system. This has been basically hollowed out by quite a few honors that are hard to explain to the public. The fact that the former CEO returned her CBE may be seen as a sign to try to fix the system.

But with all, there are humans involved and there is a human side to the story – to all stories. The fact that the scandal only now gets brought onto the national platform strikes me as, well, a bit odd.