How can we democratically govern algorithms for more socially-responsible public services?
Lecturer in Human Geography, School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia
Jason Chilvers, Reader in Environmental Social Sciences,
School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia
Dr Catherine Price, Researcher
Involve (led by Simon Burall)
Algorithms are increasingly being used in the delivery of public services. The use of algorithms can improve efficiency, remove the need for humans to perform menial tasks and the risk of human error, and allow greater personalisation of services. However, the adoption of algorithms across a wide range of applications has also had negative consequences, leading in some cases to mistakes and the deepening of forms of discrimination, as well as raising concerns about surveillance among other issues.
The project aimed to explore ways to improve the democratic oversight and socially responsible development of algorithms in public services. It did this by piloting a new methodology for mapping diverse cases of public engagement with the topic across the UK, and analyzing the cases found to identify broader patterns and to distill citizen hopes and concerns in relation to these approaches.
Mapping public engagement with algorithms
The project analysed data from 77 cases of public engagement from 2013-2020, and also mapped the public hopes and concerns about these emerging approaches articulated within and across the cases.
The project team used the mapping and review work to create a series of proposals for improved democratic oversight and socially responsible development of approaches to using algorithms in public services in partnership with stakeholders who were engaged through a one-day workshop in February 2020.
There has actually been a considerable amount of public engagement with the use of algorithms in public services already. This covers a range of different technical applications and public service areas, and shows that citizens are already putting forward a multitude of relevant perspectives on the potential benefits and risks.
However, existing forms of engagement are discrete, siloed and one-off, and there is a dominance of institution-led or ‘invited’ forms of engagement. This project is one of the first to go beyond this dominant approach to map the diversity of public engagements on this topic.
Citizens foresee some potential benefits to the use of algorithms in public services, particularly around information provision and enabling more efficient use of resources, yet they also raise a large number of concerns many of which have been explored in the data justice / digital ethics literatures, including issues around discrimination, privacy and consent.
In addition to this, in some cases of public engagement participants appear to be raising broader issues in relation to the adoption of algorithms in public services, such as the foreclosing of other forms of service provision.
There is a need to continually monitor and learn from cases of public engagement with these approaches in order to ensure that they are developing in a socially responsible manner, and to foresee potential problems and challenges.
They produced a briefing note based on the one-day workshop ‘Public engagement with algorithms in public services’.
The project team is actively seeking funding to extend this pilot project in order to map the explosion of public engagement with the use of algorithms in public services and beyond which has been seen since the start of the pandemic, and to more broadly to contribute to agendas relating to the responsible innovation of algorithms and related technologies.