Working of algorithms used in government decision-making to be revealed

Ministers and public bodies must reveal the architecture behind algorithms that influence exam results, housing benefit allocations and pothole repairs, under new transparency standards.

The UK government has published a transparency standard for algorithms, the series of instructions that a computer follows to complete a task or produce a single outcome. Algorithms have become the focus of increasing controversy, whether through their role in deciding A-level results last year or making decisions about benefit claims.

Under the new approach, government departments and public sector bodies will be required to explain where an algorithm was used, why it was used and whether it achieved its aim. There will also be an obligation to reveal the architecture behind the algorithm. It will be tested by several government departments and public sector bodies in the coming months before being reviewed again and formally launched next year.

The new standard will be split into two tiers. The first requires a short description of the algorithm, including how and why it is being used. The second includes more detailed information about how the tool works, the data that has been used to train the algorithm and the level of human oversight behind it.

Announcing the new standard, the Cabinet Office pointed to several successful uses of algorithms, including the fixing of potholes by Blackpool council and scans at the Moorfields Eye hospital in London. However, algorithms are becoming an increasingly prominent watchword in political and regulatory circles, particularly with the online safety bill going through parliament and in the wake of revelations by the Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen.

Speaking to MPs this month, the culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, warned tech bosses that they must rein in their algorithms or face punishment under the online safety bill. “Remove your harmful algorithms today and you will not be subjected – named individuals – to criminal liability and prosecution,” she said.

Announcing the new standard, Lord Agnew, minister of state at the Cabinet Office, said: “Algorithms can be harnessed by public sector organisations to help them make fairer decisions, improve the efficiency of public services and lower the cost associated with delivery. However, they must be used in decision-making processes in a way that manages risks, upholds the highest standards of transparency and accountability, and builds clear evidence of impact.”

Adrian Weller, programme director for artificial intelligence at the Alan Turing Institute, a government-backed research body for data science and AI, welcomed a “pioneering move”. He said: “Organisations are increasingly turning to algorithms to automate or support decision-making. We have a window of opportunity to put the right governance mechanisms in place as adoption increases. This is why I’m delighted to see the UK government publish one of the world’s first national algorithmic transparency standards.”


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