When Power is Given to Algorithms, What Does that Mean for the People?
Algorithms used by the government make decisions that directly impact the public on many different levels, playing a great part in the implementation of public policies, such as in the fields of education, health, migration, and public finances. This could theoretically mean, for example, that an algorithm decides whether you get admitted into the university program of your choice. But what if you do not get accepted and are left wondering why?
Making the public sector use of algorithms more transparent and accountable is crucial to ensure that digital technologies are not misused, or that they have unintended and ultimately unnoticed consequences, and that the rights of citizens are protected.
We know that just like the people who program them, algorithms too, can be biased. You may not have gotten into your choice of study program, because you belong to a minority group and so the algorithm excludes you from the choice of candidates. So the power algorithms have over you, if unchecked and hidden from you, can make it easy to distrust the government that is using them.
In France, the Digital Republic Law mandates transparency of government-used algorithms. Public agencies are required to publicly list any algorithmic tools they use, and to publish their rules. While the law upholds the principles of digital transparency, it isn’t that easy to adhere to it. Agencies are struggling to fulfill this requirement, partly because there is a lack of guidance about how to inventory algorithms, what information to include, and how it needs to be presented.
Even when agencies are following this law, it doesn’t mean that the information is immediately of use as the average person may lack the technical knowledge to understand or respond to it. France’s focus then has been on giving guidance to agencies about what they need to publish and how to go about it, and making sure that it is understandable to the average member of the public.
Developing a Democratic Algorithm Policy
With the worldwide rise of algorithms in governance, a number of OGP members are including commitments for the transparency and accountability of government-used algorithms in their action plans. In France’s 2018-2020 action plan, the government committed to ensuring that public agencies are able to fulfill their legal obligations to algorithmic transparency under the 2016 Digital Republic Law.
The implementation of the commitment has been spearheaded by Etalab, a department of the Interministerial Digital Direction (DINUM), which is tasked with coordinating the design and enactment of the state’s digital policies. In this role, the inclusion of algorithm usage into the broader policies about digital transparency falls under Etalab’s responsibilities, and it made use of the partnerships established through the development with OGP of the 2018-2020 action plan, and its own network of government and civil society groups.
Etalab Leads the Way; Tackling the Complexities of Algorithm Transparency
The bulk of the work Etalab has done to fulfill these commitments has been focussed on developing ways to help government agencies meet their legal obligations to publish usable information about the algorithms they use. This has been done by producing two guidance documents. The first shows how to open public source codes, and the second explains the legal framework of accountability and transparency of public sector algorithms. Etalab has also been working alongside agencies on specific case studies to further clarify the processes.
Continuing the work beyond the 2018-2020 action plan, Etalab has been coordinating a working group with a number of different agencies to develop and expand open algorithm registers. In February 2021 they published a guidance document for setting up a register, in which they identified four categories of information that can be gathered about each algorithm: the responsible agency; the global context and what role the algorithm has in the decision-making process; the impact of the decision; and the algorithm’s technical workings. The city of Antibes is already using the guidance to publish a register of 8 algorithms which it uses.
This guidance document goes beyond listing information about algorithms and provides step-by-step guides on how agencies can start the process, including who to contact, how to establish a governance system, and which algorithms to prioritize. Take this last point, for example, following the instructions of the document, Lyon decided to first target their social affairs departments as they make crucial, day-to-day decisions about vulnerable populations who might feel particularly powerless in government decision-making.
Bringing Algorithms Closer to the People; Providing Oversight
The efforts by Etalab have made significant strides in not only providing information about algorithms, but in providing accessible guidance to government agencies. With the use of the guidance documents, agencies can meet their legal obligations and add to a growing database of publicly interrogable algorithms.
The insights taken from this process have been put to good use, both in the development of these documents, and in looking ahead.
Etalab is now planning to get feedback on the February 2021 proposal register, especially from civil society organizations who can use this information to make governments more accountable. The goal is for the information being published to be incorporated into a more interactive format, so that details can be found more easily and comparisons between agencies and particular algorithms can be made.
There are still questions to be answered about how the final register will look, where it will be published, and how to encourage the public to interact with the information it contains. The path forward requires continued cooperation between government agencies and civil society organizations, and public-awareness and engagement strategies.
Technological developments means that algorithms will only be used more and more by governments around the world. International cooperation can help reform efforts, through sharing good practices, common challenges and new ideas. For this reason, OGP is coordinating the international Open Algorithms Network, which brings together implementing government agencies, international experts and civil society organizations.