Government needs a Ministerial champion and a new procurement model for algorithms

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez May 23, 2018
A report released by the Science and Technology Select Committee outlines some of the challenges facing government as the use of algorithms grows.

As the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) comes into force this week for member states - including the UK - what better time for the Science and Technology Select Committee to release a report outlining how government could best take advantage of the inevitable use of algorithms in public sector decision making.

The report outlines the obvious remarks about the increased use of algorithms in the age of ‘big data’ and machine learning, pointing to the fact that the government needs to be thinking now about how it could reduce bias in algorithm-based decision making. The Committee notes that more than two years has passed since its predecessor Committee called for an oversight body to address these issues, but acknowledges that the newly formed Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation will be taking on some of this responsibility.

However, beyond the obvious, there were some clear recommendations within the report that actually seem sensible and should be taken on board by the government (although where this responsibility lies is unclear to me) - but more on that later.

Norman Lamb, chair of the Science and Technology Committee, commented on the report by calling for the government to urgently explain how public sector data can be used by companies to improve public services. He said:

Algorithms present the Government with a huge opportunity to improve public services and outcomes, particularly in the NHS. They also provide commercial opportunities to the private sector in industries such as insurance, banking and advertising. But they can also make flawed decisions which may disproportionately affect some people and groups.

The Centre for Data Ethics & Innovation should review the operation of the GDPR, but more immediately learn lessons from the Cambridge Analytica case about the way algorithms are governed when used commercially.

The Government must urgently produce a model that demonstrates how public data can be responsibly used by the private sector, to benefit public services such as the NHS. Only then will we benefit from the enormous value of our health data. Deals are already being struck without the required partnership models we need.

The recommendations

Getting into the detail of the report, here are the main recommendations that I picked out as a priority for government to which some solutions should be quickly identified.

  • Government should continue to make public sector datasets available, not just for ‘big data’ developers but also for algorithm developers, through new ‘data trusts’. The government should also produce, maintain and publhih a list of where algorithms with significant impacts are being used within Whitehall, along with projects underway or planned for public service algorithms.
  • A ministerial champion should be appointed to provide government-wide oversight of algorithm use - both in terms of public sector use, private sector use, and to co-ordinate departments’ approaches.
  • The government should consider negotiating better public service delivery in exchange for dataset access, not simply accept what developers offer in return for access.
  • The Crown Commercial Service should commission a review to set out a procurement model for algorithms developed with private sector partners, which fully realises the value for the public sector. The Committee notes that these are urgent requirements, because partnership deals are already being struck without the benefit of national guidance for this evolving field.
  • The government should adopt a default position that algorithms should be transparent when the algorithms in question affect the public. In other words, when the public wants to question a decision made by an algorithm that affects them, then they should be able to get access to the inner workings of that algorithm.

My take

The main concern highlighted in the report should be that departments could well already be undertaking algorithm projects, without clear advice/guidance from an overarching framework. This is a quickly developing field and the government needs to make it a priority. A minister responsible for algorithms sounds sensible, but I’m not sure who would want to take on this brief - or who has the expertise - given what’s at stake. Equally, whilst private partnerships are inevitable and could well lead to better public service delivery, we need to be active in ensuring that these projects are handled carefully and with proper oversight. I’m not sure that the government is yet taking the thorough action that is needed.