Government must earn public trust that AI is being used safely and responsibly

Article by Sue Bateman and Felicity Burch: “Algorithms have the potential to improve so much of what we do in the public sector, from the delivery of frontline public services to informing policy development across every sector. From first responders to first permanent secretaries, artificial intelligence has the potential to enable individuals to make better and more informed decisions.

In order to realise that potential over the long term, however, it is vital that we earn the public’s trust that AI is being used in a way that is safe and responsible.

One way to build that trust is transparency. That is why today, we’re delighted to announce the launch of the Algorithmic Transparency Recording Standard (the Standard), a world-leading, simple and clear format to help public sector organisations to record the algorithmic tools they use. The Standard has been endorsed by the Data Standards Authority, which recommends the standards, guidance and other resources government departments should follow when working on data projects.

Enabling transparent public sector use of algorithms and AI is vital for a number of reasons. 

Firstly, transparency can support innovation in organisations, whether that is helping senior leaders to engage with how their teams are using AI, sharing best practice across organisations or even just doing both of those things better or more consistently than done previously. The Information Commissioner’s Office took part in the piloting of the Standard and they have noted how it “encourages different parts of an organisation to work together and consider ethical aspects from a range of perspective”, as well as how it “helps different teams… within an organisation – who may not typically work together – learn about each other’s work”.

Secondly, transparency can help to improve engagement with the public, and reduce the risk of people opting out of services – where that is an option. If a significant proportion of the public opt out, this can mean that the information the algorithms use is not representative of the wider public and risks perpetuating bias. Transparency can also facilitate greater accountability: enabling citizens to understand or, if necessary, challenge a decision.

Finally, transparency is a gateway to enabling other goals in data ethics that increase justified public trust in algorithms and AI. 

For example, the team at The National Archives described the benefit of using the Standard as a “checklist of things to think about” when procuring algorithmic systems, and the Thames Valley Police team who piloted the Standard emphasised how transparency could “prompt the development of more understandable models”…(More)”.