Ethical governance, data and technology – Digital Government Review #diggovreview

It’s been great fun to be on the Digital Government Review with some very bright and lovely people.  I have been particularly interested in how we can help technology companies and government deliver remarkable new services based on data that don’t scare the living daylights out of people or auto-destruct in a massive storm of ethical protest that their inventors didn’t dream of.    I see there is early media interest in this so I thought I would bring some of the thinking together in a blog post.

We need as a society to help technologists bring an ethical dimension to their work.  Cloud computing and a proliferation of the intimate data about people allows organisations to create quite profound services with a societal impact.  People can create services that are within the law, or at least appear to be within the legal quagmire, but that give rise to powerful ethical questions that most organisations, including government bodies and partisan politicians are ill-equipped to manage.

There is strong competitive advantage for the UK in getting this right ahead of the rest of the world – responsible business want to work within a good framework, especially where that helps them deliver controversial services that are accepted by society instead of rejected.

An ethical advisory system would be there to help people do their jobs and provide wonderful innovative digital services, avoiding ethical bear traps.   How we do this needs to be discussed, learning from ethic governance systems in science, medicine and academe that blend the strategic big picture with the tactical ‘We are planning to do this thing next week any problems?’.  But with a particular focus on technology and data.  What it would not mean would be a giant national committee that dispenses Solomonic wisdom from on high, nor at the other extreme tech startups having to have a Bishop or Rabbi on their board.   Nor, necessarily statutory regulation – this area cries out for starting off with effective self regulation.  It would be important to look at helping smaller companies that won’t have the networks, money or time to convene their own advisors.  And also helping government bodies gain an independent non-partisan ethical view.

I thought it might be helpful to bring together some of the text on this.  Below I set out the text and background

In an article I wrote in the Summer on ‘Open data in society‘ I said among other things that:

The explosion of data and the power to manipulate it gives intimate insight into people’s lives at a near population scale. This could fundamentally change social policy, just as mapping the human genome has affected medicine. Like medical research this intimate insight at a population scale requires a governance and ethical framework independent of politicians and the executive. It requires radical reform of the existing regulatory institutions and laws and strong international partnerships. With the right framework Britain will have a competitive edge.

There are huge competitive and societal benefits to be gained for Britain if we can embrace this revolution for the public good. However, rapid, profound, technology driven change across society is always difficult for any political and administrative system to manage. And when people and the media are unsettled by change it’s difficult to maintain people’s confidence as things go wrong unless you have a governance system people can trust.

In my view the failings of a largely pre-web, pre-cloud regulatory system at being laid bare. And we need a comprehensive review of the way Britain approaches the benefits and challenge of data in society before confidence is further undermined. It’s an old canard to say that all regulation is bad – good regulation of data that retains public trust can create competitive advantage – if it makes markets more long-term sustainable and creates social benefit.

In the Digital Government Review we go on to say:

Put simply, people, organisations and governments are now playing with incredibly powerful big data tools and technologies that they can’t claim fully to understand.  Rick [sic] management is vital so that we don’t lose the benefits to society caused by a backlash when things go wrong.  Having a regime that manages risk well can create a competitive advantage for the UK. At the heart of this should be consideration of the ethics of a particular process, considered in the round outside the day-to-day managerial and political pressures that exist within organisations

Medicine and academia have shown this is possible and practical. They have long standing ethical governance mechanisms that allow high-level deliberation of ethical issues and rapid tactical, pragmatic ethical governance at a working level.  Government needs to come to a similar arrangement within technology and public policy learning from best practice elsewhere.

Recommendation 14      Priority: high

That government create an ethical framework and governance for emerging ethical issues around the interaction of the state, its citizens and corporations via digital technology

The scope of this ethical framework could usefully extend beyond big data and personal data to areas that the public and private sectors can reasonably be expected to trial during the next term of office, such as wearable technologies, health monitoring and robotics. It could also advise government on complex issues at the boundary of technology and society such as the ongoing European disputes over the “Right to be Forgotten”.

Given the scale of the challenge and concepts involved the membership of the governance structure should extend beyond public sector employees, it should represent society and the many voices and experts within it.

The ethics framework would assist policy makers and delivery teams both within and outside the public sector to make appropriate decisions for the long-term good of society.

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William Perrin

Founder of Talk About Local, Trustee of the Indigo Trust, member of UK Government transparency panels, former Policy Advisor to UK Prime Minister, former Cabinet Office senior civil servant.Open data do-er, Kings Cross London blogger. Loves countryside. Two kids, not enough sleep.
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