10 Principles for Public Sector use of Algorithmic Decision Making

Eddie Copeland – NESTA

This is a really interesting attempt to set out a a set of regulatory principles for the use of algorithms in the public sector. It brings what can easily be quite an abstract debate down to earth: we can talk about open data and open decision making, but what actually needs to be open (and to whom) to make that real?

The suggested principles mostly look like a sensible starting point for debate. Two of them though seem a little problematic, one trivially, the other much more significantly. The trivial one is principle 9, that public sector organisations should insure against errors, which isn’t really a principle at all, though the provision of compensation might be. The important one is principle 5, “Citizens must be informed when their treatment has been informed wholly or in part by an algorithm”. On the face of it, that’s innocuous and reasonable. Arguably though, it’s the equivalent of having a man with a red flag walking in front of a car. Government decisions are already either based on algorithms (often called “laws” or “regulations”) or they are based on human judgements, likely to be more opaque than any computer algorithm. Citizens should absolutely be entitled to an explanation and a justification for any decision affecting them – but the means by which the decision at issue was made should have no bearing on that right.

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