AI in the UK: ready, willing and able?

House of Lords Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence

There is something slightly disconcerting about reading a robust and comprehensive account of public policy issues in relation to artificial intelligence in the stately prose style of a parliamentary report. But the slightly antique structure shouldn’t get in the way of seeing this as a very useful and systematic compendium.

The strength of this approach is that it covers the ground systematically and is very open about the sources of the opinions and evidence it uses. The drawback, oddly, is that the result is an curiously unpolitical document – mostly sensible recommendations are fired off in all directions, but there is little recognition, still less assessment, of the forces in play which might result in the recommendations being acted on. The question of what needs to be done is important, but the question of what it would take to get it done is in some ways even more important – and is one a House of Lords committee might be expected to be well placed to answer.

One of the more interesting chapters is a case study of the use of AI in the NHS. What comes through very clearly is that there is a fundamental misalignment betweeen the current organisational structure of the NHS and any kind of sensible and coherent use – or even understanding- of the data it holds and of the range of uses, from helpful to dangerous, to which it could be put. That’s important not just in its own right, but as an illustration of a much wider issue of institutional design noted by Geoff Mulgan.

Designing digital services that are accountable, understood, and trusted

Richard Pope

This is a couple of years old, but is not in any way the worse for that. It’s an essay (originally a conference presentation), addressed to software developers, seeking to persuade them that in working in software or design, they are inescapably working in politics.

He’s right about that, but the implications for those on the other end of the connection are just as important. If the design of software is not neutral in political or policy terms, then people concerned with politics and policy need to understand this just as much. Thanks to Tom Loosemore for the enthusiastic reminder of its existence.

Looking at historical parallels to inform digital rights policy

Justine Leblanc – IF

Past performance, it is often said, is not a guide to future performance. That may be sound advice in some circumstances, but is more often than not a sign that people are paying too little attention to history, over too short a period, rather than that there is in fact nothing to learn from the past. To take a random but real example, there are powerful insights to be had on contemporary digital policy from looking at the deployment of telephones and carrier pigeons in the trenches of the first world war.

That may be an extreme example, but it’s a reason why the idea of explicitly looking for historical parallels for current digital policy questions is a good one. This post introduces a project to do exactly that, which promises to be well worth keeping an eye on.

The value of understanding history, in part to avoid having to repeat it, is not limited to digital policy, of course. That’s a reason for remembering the value of the History and Policy group, which is based on “the belief that history can and should improve public policy making, helping to avoid reinventing the wheel and repeating past mistakes.”

YouTube, the Great Radicalizer

Zeynep Tufekci – New York Times

This article has been getting extensive and well-deserved coverage over the last few days. Essentially, it is demonstrating that the YouTube recommendation engine tends to lead to more extreme material, more or less whatever your starting point. In  short, “YouTube leads viewers down a rabbit hole of extremism, while Google racks up the ad sales.”

The reason for including it here is not because of the specific algorithm or the specific behaviour it generates. It is because it’s a very clear example of a wider phenomenon. It’s a pretty safe assumption that the observed behaviour is not the result of a cabal of fringe conspirators deep in the secret basements of Google setting out a trail to recruit people into extremist groups or attitudes. The pretty obvious motivation is that what they are actually trying to do is to tempt people into spending as long as possible watching YouTube videos, because that’s the way they can put most advertising in front of most eyeballs.

In other words, algorithmic tools can have radically unintended consequences. That’s made worse in this case because the unintended consequences are not a sign of the intended goal not being achieved; on the contrary, they are the very means by which that intended goal is being achieved. So it is not just the case that YouTube has some strong incentives not to fix the problem, the problem may not be obvious to them in the first place.

This is a clear example. But we need to keep asking the same questions about other systems: what are the second order effects, will we recognise them when we see them, and will we be ready to – and able to – address them?

Digital government: reasons to be cheerful

Janet Hughes

This is an energetic and challenging presentation on the state of digital government – or rather of digital government in the UK. It’s available in various formats, the critical thing is to make sure you read the notes as well as look at the slides.

The first part of the argument is that digital government has got to a critical mass of inexorability. That doesn’t mean that progress hasn’t sometimes been slow and painful and it doesn’t mean that individual programmes and even organisations will survive, or even that today’s forecasts about the future of government will be any more accurate in their detail than those of twenty years ago. It does though mean that the questions then and now were basically the right ones even if it has been – and is – a struggle to work towards good answers.

The second part of the argument introduces a neat taxonomy of the stages of maturity of digital government, with the argument that the UK is now somewhere between the integrate and reboot phases. That’s clearly the direction of travel, but it’s perhaps more debatable how much of government even now is at that point of inflexion. The present, like the future, remains unevenly distributed.

Forget policy — start with people

Beatrice Karol Burks – Designing Good Things

This is a short polemic against the idea of policy, and by extension against the (self) importance of those who make it. It clearly and strongly makes an important point – but in doing so misses something important about policy and politics.

It is certainly true that starting with people and their needs is a good way of approaching problems. But it doesn’t follow that anything called policy is necessarily vacuous or redundant. Policy making, and indeed politics, is all about making choices, and those choices would still be there even if the options to be considered were better grounded.

None of that makes the practical suggestions in this post wrong. But if we forget policy, we forget something important.

A roadmap for AI: 10 ways governments will change (and what they risk getting wrong)

Geoff Mulgan – NESTA

This is a great summary of where AI stands in the hype cycle. Its focus is the application to government, but most of it is more generally relevant. It’s really helpful in drawing out what ought to be the obvious point that AI is not one thing and that it therefore doesn’t have a single state of development maturity.

The last of the list of ten is perhaps the most interesting. Using AI to apply more or less current rules in more or less current contexts and systems is one thing (and is a powerful driver of change in its own right). But the longer term opportunity is to change the nature of the game. That could be a black box dystopia, but it could instead be an opportunity to break away from incremental change and find more radical opportunities to change the system. But that depends, as this post rightly concludes, on not getting distracted by the technology as a goal in its own right, but focusing instead on what better government might look like.

Why Theoretical Physics Says The US Is Ungovernable

Yaneer Bar-Yam – Science Friday

An understanding of quantum field theory apparently demonstrates that in large convoluted organisations, hierarchical structures with one person in charge can’t work, because the level of complexity becomes impossible to manage. That’s essentially the long standing perspective of systems thinking – if you want to change a system, you have to change the system – and while it’s entertaining to see the point made from a different standpoint, the real question is not whether this approach can provide a diagnosis, but whether it can offer a prescription for change.

It’s almost certainly unfair to make a judgement about that on the basis of the transcript of a short radio interview, which is what this is, but what’s striking is how quickly the prescription becomes a platitude. If political decision making were more distributed, as decisions in the brain are distributed between neurons, better decisions would result. That may well be true, but doesn’t get us very far. Part of the suggestion here seems to be a form of subsidiarity, which is a good start, but one big reason politics is hard is because decisions really are interdependent. What we have to do, apparently, is create mechanisms whereby participation translates into actual decision making. Well yes (or at least, well maybe), but asserting a solution falls a very long way short of describing it.

It’s included here despite all that for two reasons. The first is as a reminder that politics is hard and that insights from other disciplines are unlikely to provide magic answers to long standing and intractable problems. The second is that problems of political decision making are long standing and intractable and answers, ideally less magical, are still very much needed.

How do we embed digital transformation in government?

Matthew Cain – Medium

There are increasing numbers of government services which are digital. But that doesn’t make for a digital government. This post is a challenge to set a greater ambition, to make government itself digitally transformed. As a manifesto or a call to arms, there’s a lot here: a government with the characteristics envisaged here would be a better government. But in general, the problem with transforming government has not been with describing how government might work better, but with navigating the route to get there – and that makes the question in the title critically important. Ultimately though, the digital bit may be a critical catalyst but is not the goal – and we need to be clear both about the nature of that goal and about the fact that digital is a means of transforming; not that transforming is a means to be digital. This post describes powerful tools for realising an ambition for better government – but they will have effect only if both ambition and opportunity are there to use them. On that, it’s well worth reading this alongside Matthew’s own post earlier this year commenting on the government’s digital strategy.

We’ll need more than ÂŁ40m* a year to get free maps – specifically politicians willing to share

Ed Parkes

This is the back story to one of yesterday’s budget announcements – ÂŁ40 million a year for two years to give UK small businesses access to Ordnance Survey data. If you are interested in that you will find it gripping. But even if you are not, it’s well worth reading as a perceptive – if necessarily speculative – account of how policy gets made.

There are people lobbying for change – some outside government, some within. What they want done has a cost, but more importantly entails changing the way that the problem is thought about, not just in the bit of government which owns the policy, but in the Treasury, which is going to have to pay for it. A decision is made, but not one which is as clear cut or all embracing as the advocates would have liked. They have won, in a sense, but what they have won isn’t really what they wanted.

It’s also a good example of why policy making is hard. What seems at first to be a simple issue about releasing data quickly expands into wider questions of industrial and social strategy – is it a good idea to subsidise mapping data, even if the first order beneficiaries are large non-UK multinationals whose reputation for paying taxes is not the most positive? Is time limited pump-priming funding the right stimulus, or does it risk creating a surge of activity which then dies away? And, of course, this is a policy with no service design in sight.

Technology for the Many: A Public Policy Platform for a Better, Fairer Future

Chris Yiu – Institute for Global Change

This wide ranging and fast moving report hits the Strategic Reading jackpot. It provides a bravura tour of more of the topics covered here than is plausible in a single document, ticking almost every category box along the way. It moves at considerable speed, but without sacrificing coherence or clarity. That sets the context for a set of radical recommendations to government, based on the premise established at the outset that incremental change is a route to mediocrity, that ‘status quo plus’ is a grave mistake.

Not many people could pull that off with such aplomb. The pace and fluency sweep the reader along through the recommendations, which range from the almost obvious to the distinctly unexpected. There is a debate to be had about whether they are the best (or the right) ways forward, but it’s a debate well worth having, for which this is an excellent provocation.

 

Do bureaucrats care? A take on talent in the public sector

Martin Stewart-Weeks – Public Purpose

The question in the title of this piece can be answered very simply: yes, overwhelmingly bureaucrats do care. The fact that such an answer is not obvious, or not credible, to many people who are not bureaucrats suggests that the better question might be, how is it that uncaringness is an emergent property of systems populated by caring people?

Two rather different groups of bureaucrats are considered here. The first is those furthest from the delivery of services, particularly policy makers, and of them particularly those who learned their penmanship while studying classics at Oxford. There are rather fewer of those than there once were. But there is overwhelming evidence that even those who do not neatly fit the stereotype can be far too distant from the people whose needs their policies are intended to address. The second group is those who deliver services directly to the people who use them, described drawing on the work of Bernardo Zacka, covered here a few weeks ago. They are not rules-applying automata, but subtle observers, judges and influencers of what is going on – and incorporating those perspectives and insights into policy making enhances it immeasurably. That is increasingly happening, but this post is a good reminder that too often the gap remains a wide one.

From public services to “services to the public”: the three elements of contemporary welfare

Lord Adebowale and Henry Kippin – LSE British Politics and Policy

Public services – and specifically those of the Beveridge welfare state – are dead; long live services to the public. The argument here is essentially that monolithic, top-down solutions are no longer fit for purpose (though some element of the Beveridge welfare state have always fitted that description much better than others), and that we need to replace them with approaches which are more local and are designed more collaboratively. It is undeniably true that much has changed since Beveridge’s time, and the idea that the man from Whitehall (or, of course, in Beveridge’s case, the man from the LSE) knows best doesn’t have the force it once had, to put it mildly. There is much to be said for the three principles which the authors suggest should underpin the new services to the public – that welfare should be seen as a public good; that services should be designed collaboratively; and that they should be organised and led around places. Wishing for a different future is easy, and there is certainly a place of visionary alternatives. But this would be a more powerful post if it gave at least some account of what a transition might look like or how it might be triggered.

The civil service is in crisis. This must not go to waste

Andrew Greenway – Civil Service World

Do you best transform government by importing disruption and disruptors to overwhelm the status quo, or by nurturing and encouraging deeper but slower change which more gradually displaces the status quo? Or do both methods fail, leaving government – and the civil service – to stagger on to the next crisis, all set to try again and fail again?

The argument of this post is that those attempts are doomed to failure because the civil service is not willing to acknowledge the depth of the crisis it faces, and until it is, it will never take the steps necessary to fix things. It’s a good and thought provoking polemic – and the questions above are very real ones. But it underplays two important factors. The first is to frame this as being about the civil service. Arguably, that’s too narrow a view: if you want to change the system, you have to change the system: the civil service is the way that it is in large part because of the wider political system of which it is part. The second is one the article rightly identifies, but then does not really pursue. One reason disruptive outsiders tend to fail is that by definition they are brought in at a time when they enjoy the strongest possible patronage – and it’s an understandable temptation to see that as a normal state of affairs. But the reality is that such patronage always fades. Disruptors tend to sprint; they might do better if they planned for a relay – and that is as true for those attempting to disrupt from within as for those brought in to disrupt from without.

Good policy, badly implemented

Chris Dillow – Stumbling and Mumbling

The problem with good policies, badly implemented is not primarily the bad implementation, it is that the bad implementation strongly suggests they weren’t good policies to start with. That’s the proposition advanced by this post, (and one interesting to read in parallel with The Blunders of our Government).

There are few examples of good but badly implemented policies because, in this approach, policy making is not – or not just – the grand sweep of a speech, but is the grinding detail of working through real world implications. Failure of implementation is therefore a strong indicator of a bad policy – akin, perhaps, to the idea that if you can’t explain a complicated thing simply, you probably don’t understand it.

In praise of those who serve. Yes, even under Trump. Especially under Trump.

Jennifer Pahlka – Code for America

Civil servants and civil services have ethical responsibilities for what they do. They can and must take account of the democratic mandate of the governments they serve, but that is a factor in the ethical judgements they make, it is not an exemption from the obligation to make them.

Usually when questions of this kind are discussed it is in the context of the limits beyond which government officials should not act, given that by strong implication politically neutral civil servants value the political, legal and civil system more highly than all the specific outcomes of that system. But this post is doubly interesting because it comes from the opposite direction: are there countervailing obligations, are there circumstances in which officials should continue in government despite fundamental disagreements with the policy and ethics of the political leaders they serve? The assertion here is that commitment to the values of public service can – and arguably should – lead people to stay in government both to sustain services to those who depend on them and to mitigate the worst consequences of bad policies and decisions. It’s a powerful argument. But it has the potential to be a profoundly undemocratic one. Democracies undoubtedly need checks and balances and in extremis, civil services can be such a check. But we should be worried – much more as citizens than as bureaucrats – when political and legal checks are insufficient to create an ethical balance.

Bureaucrats to the Rescue

Bernardo Zacka – Boston Review

Politicians make decisions, legitimised by their democratic mandate. Bureaucrats implement those decisions, based on the objective and standardised application of rules.

So at least goes the standard caricature. Reality is, of course, more complicated than that. That simplistic model breaks down for at last two kinds of reasons. First, the real world is just too big and varied to make it possible – or sensible – to specify everything in minute detail. Systems which attempt to do that tend to break. Secondly, bureaucrats and the consumers of public services are human beings (as indeed are politicians), and their interactions will inevitably be influenced by emotional as well rational responses. Bureaucrats always have faces, even if those faces are not always visible.

This article is a thoughtful exploration of the place of bureaucracy and bureaucrats in wider political systems, including the psychological toil which can be exacted on those trying to manage those intrinsic tensions between rules, complex reality, and humanity.

 

Designing for democracy

Catherine Howe – Curious?

By happy – one might almost say curious – coincidence, this is another mapping of policy interventions, but this time ranked by democratic power. The result may feel a little painful to user researchers, but is a powerful complement to the Policy Lab perspectives.

But this post is about much more than a neat diagram. The core argument is that policy making is intrinsically political, and that being political should mean being democratic, not – or at least not just – because democracy is intrinsically good, but because there is already clear evidence that bad things happen when design, and particularly digital design, happens in a democratic vacuum. ‘Working in the open’ is one of the mantras of GDS. This post takes that thought to a level I suspect few of its proponents have ever imagined.

Government doesn’t have needs

A short and powerful polemic on why government doesn’t have needs (and thus why governments are different from users, which do). It’s a powerful argument, but a narrower one than the author seems to recognise. To the extent that government is a provider of services, there is much to be said for a strong focus on meeting user needs, and there is certainly good reason to think that behaving as if that were true has some powerful positive benefits, not least in that using the language of needs gives the best possible chance of not getting prematurely tied up with solutions. There’s a risk, though, that the consumers of a service are seen as the only relevant people, and their needs the only relevant needs. That’s sometimes true (or as nearly true that we don’t need to worry about it), but often there are social and collective interests in how a service operates as well as the individual one – which is one reason they are government services in the first place.

The post is also dismissive of describing the users of government services as ‘customers’. That’s a view which is more rigid than sensible – but that’s a debate for another day.

Charles Reynolds-Talbot – Medium