- Date published:
3:54 pm, May 26th, 2018 - 22 comments
Categories: greens, labour, public services - Tags: algorithms, clare curran, dia, Immigration New Zealand, james shaw, modelling, Open Government, statistics nz, technology
It’s finally happened.
I know I have been harsh on Minister Clare Curran, but she’s actually done something positive, in her portfolio, that might achieve something tangible domestically, however small, and I confess to being just a little bit excited. I am harsh because I genuinely care about the portfolios she has being treated well and delivering for us all, and this is the first news I actually feel like she’s broadly on the right track and has done something substantive.
Together with Greens co-leader and in this case more relevantly, Statistics Minister James Shaw, she has set up a stocktake and review of all government algorithms. I offer no conclusions on who led the initiative, and frankly it doesn’t bother me if it gets claimed jointly even if it was Shaw’s idea- Curran has clearly bought into it either way. This may sound like a technical and bureaucratic change, and in some ways it is, but remember, that dumb Immigration NZ fiasco all came about because a half-arsed spreadsheet model started going into actual use, with no auditing, and no advance transparency of how INZ planned to automate decisions, or internal justification of why or how a spreadsheet model would be an appropriate basis for decision-making, and we probably only ended up stopping it because Golriz speaking out about it embarrassed the government into having another look. Proper automation as a starting point for making decisions, with human review by relevant staff who will be expected to explain why or why not they followed the algorithm’s recommendation in their relevant file notes, can be a good thing.
But only where the model is robust, itself free of both explicit and implicit discriminatory factors, (thus acting to reduce discrimination by making the model’s decision the baseline case for humans to check against) and if the algorithm for the decision is publicly available for free critique, such algorithms can reduce bias, increase consistency, cut red tape, and lower complaint rates when utilized strategically.
Here’s a summary of the salient points:
Reviewing all automated decision-making and data analysis throughout government is an excellent step in deconstructing National’s failed social investment model, already embedded in many of the Ministries in the worst state after the last Government, and is clearly necessary to ensure we don’t have any more departments going rogue in how they make decisions.
The definition above is a reasonable starting point, although it ought to explicitly include scripts used inside documents and webpages, so that all departments are clear that spreadsheets or internal websites can be models or contain algorithms with decision-making or advisory powers. Galloway got in trouble precisely because he thought he could get away with claiming that a script is not a “real” program, as if using something you regarded so dismissively was somehow better. In fact programs themselves are nothing more than large chains of scripts, possibly with some user interface thrown in to pad the user from all of the maths and simplify their tasks down a little bit.
I like the goals they’ve included, but I do think there’s an obvious one missing: Why not commit to making all algorithms used in modelling for decision-making publicly available at a deadline to be determined? Ministerial algorithms are going to become something a lot like sub-laws going forward, where they will govern the expected way certain government departments act. I expect Shaw is already onto this with Stats as-is, of course, but Curran can get the rest of government set on the right track.
On this subject, I helped with the design of a calculation spreadsheet for EQC small-claims cash settlement during my time there, (and many other sheets to model or report information that was pertinent to management, rather than customers) and even though it was a spreadsheet we treated the thing very seriously and even had to get managerial sign-off for it afterwards despite them commissioning it in the first place, because we knew if we made any mistakes or left anything relevant out of the spreadsheet, it would potentially guide people into making incorrect decisions. (We still constructed at least a good four or five revisions of that spreadsheet afterwards in my time there, of course, as policy evolved, new needs emerged, or we simply found assumptions being made that real-world claims would break) That is how all design of government algorithms should be approached, and it’s not unreasonable for people to know the maths behind how their decision was made where such a thing applies, (at least so long as that maths doesn’t fall squarely into one of the deniable OIA categories, such as National Security or economic sensitivity) and we would expect under the OIA principle of gradually expanding openness that we will increase the sorts of information released under the OIA or proactively over time anyway, so this is really just getting the public sector’s legal obligations out of the way on the front foot.
And if the objection is around writing a briefing on all of those algorithms… well, if us “techwizards” can’t explain it to ordinary people to some meaningful degree, (which we should be doing anyway for the decision-making type of algorithm, because they need managerial approval) honestly, we probably don’t understand it ourselves well enough to use it to be making decisions.
So, my sincere congratulations to Minister Curran: I hope to see more positive initiatives in the future, and I hope to see positive results on this soon.