Technology for public good in the public service

Technology for public good in the public service

As government seeks to modernize its processes and policies, tech and automation must be applied meaningfully. Learn more from Bianca Wylie in our ongoing series on an equitable innovation economy.
September 5, 2019
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Bianca Wylie is an open government advocate with a dual background in technology and public engagement. She is the co-founder of Tech Reset Canada and is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in the Global Economy program.

Outdated government procurement regimes for information technology (IT) are grey areas, spaces that enable a range of actors to exert influence on public service delivery and public infrastructure. Technology and consulting companies, and their business models, are wedging themselves between governments and the governed. 

Government IT procurement, as it stands today, is a policy vulnerability—a place where symptoms of deeper issues manifest. It exposes residents and governments to a range of risks, including a loss of control over important decisions regarding government operations, access to public services, or due process in resolving disputes. 

Some of the possible fixes for this problem have much less to do with procurement directly, and more to do with how the public service is organized and operates, which includes human resources and broader policy thinking. One of many approaches to better manage these issues is increased investment in rebuilding and expanding government capacity in the technical realm. 

Governments in Canada, at all levels, are doing it. But they should be doing much more. Aside from being able to build and direct more of the new government architecture and projects, it is also about providing increased guidance and oversight in government purchasing. 

Governments have significant experience managing commercial contracts with companies. In a conversation I had with Sean McDonald, principal at Digital Public, he put it like this: “The prevailing, and somewhat destructive, fiction about technology procurement is that it’s so “disruptive” or “different” that normal rules shouldn’t apply. But the part about which rules apply and how—that is a government decision. In 2019, we need governments capable of confidently making and enforcing those decisions.”

There are glimmers of hope at all levels of government in terms of building out digital capacity, including some projects focused specifically on procurement, such as this recent handbook from 18F. Digital services divisions are often organized as small teams and projects with big mandates and too little funding but the start is there. This is a moment to create more space for them, and to grow them.

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...the state is a big investor in innovation. It would be the perfect time to take that history and change it from a mindset born of military and defense spending into one that takes aim at a different set of policy goals.

Governments can use this investment in digital capacity as part of a larger opportunity to redefine the future of the public service. Perhaps discourse around digital government is creating an opportunity to convene on the state of the state: to challenge the efficiency-first narrative of the digital consensus (digital as a normative good) with an appeal to justice-informed policy instead. To derail any further entrenchment of computational power and create new lines of accountability for state policy. 

Governments offer a unique opportunity to build and buy deeply thoughtful technology, and to consider if and how this work can be shared with other governments and civil society organizations. As is made visible in economist Mariana Mazucatto’s work, the state is a big investor in innovation. It would be the perfect time to take that history and change it from a mindset born of military and defense spending into one that takes aim at a different set of policy goals.

In current public discourse, technology has been closely associated with data, but this is an erroneously narrow understanding of innovation in software, hardware, and technology in general. There’s so much more to tech than big tech and its data collection and exploitation habits, as well as its narrow consideration of people as consumers. 

The state has a data appetite too, one that Renee Sieber, associate professor in the Department of Geography at McGill University, has characterized as a fundamental feature of the social contract. To this end, one of the founding questions in a renewed approach to buying and building government tech could be: where is more data or tech needed to broaden the care we provide to all people who live in Canada, and where is a lack of data used as a ploy to avoid the real problems of institutional racism and classism, which are the most fundamental contributors to unethical policy in our democracy? We do not need ethics in AI nearly as much as we need ethics in policy. 

Put another way, the pressing policy challenge in technology procurement and creation is how to avert the digital consensus, the idea of digital as a normative good, rather than what it is: a slippery force that entrenches and accelerates the status quo.

The current state of the liberal democratic political institution reflects a “perversion of knowledge,” as Ruha Benjamin, Associate Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University calls it, in her book Race After Technology. As Benjamin writes, we are in the midst of: “The datafication of injustice… in which the hunt for more and more data is a barrier to acting on what we already know” (p. 116). 

Former and current politicians across the spectrum in Canada have co-opted the language of justice but take none of the accountability in delivering it, though they have all the data and information they need to do so. What we do not need right now is “more of the same” policy delivery, and we particularly don’t need more of the same, but faster. 

Put another way, the pressing policy challenge in technology procurement and creation is how to avert the digital consensus, the idea of digital as a normative good, rather than what it is: a slippery force that entrenches and accelerates the status quo. As Daniel Munro explains, this risk of automating the status quo is to be expected from a philosophical perspective. Failure to interrogate what we’re doing before we do more of it, and faster, is normal. He goes on to share that: “the philosopher Hanna Pitkin observed that many of our moral failings are a result not of deliberate malevolence, but of simply not thinking about what we are doing. Pitkin worried about the way our lives and communities are shaped “by drift and inadvertence” and believed that the remedy is “to exercise the human capacity to think about what we are doing.” 

Take the use of artificial intelligence, or machine learning, as an example. It is, if nothing else, quite a boring technology. As Jonnie Penn writes: “Many contemporary AI systems do not so much mimic human thinking as they do the less imaginative minds of bureaucratic institutions; our machine-learning techniques are often programmed to achieve superhuman scale, speed and accuracy at the expense of human-level originality, ambition or morals.”  

Governments regularly build or procure technologies that entrench and accelerate bureaucratic notions of value, such as providing digital service channels for previously analog or in-person services. Renewing a driver’s licence and health card more quickly or online is useful, and should be done, but it cannot be the end of the road as to how governments consider their use of technology, as a client to service-provider model. 

Turning access to government services into a fast food drive-through has shifted too much focus on how to get a service and muted critical conversations about what that service is. It also narrows the conversation to broadening or making access to the service easier instead of examining whether people want or need the service and how to improve it. There is a danger of further atrophying the vast stores of human talent in the public service by requiring their labour to be used as handmaidens of this boring automation. 

To make the most of technology you have to, somewhat counter-intuitively, make it smaller and grow the role of humans in defining how technology can work and be used.

Software also poses a risk of smoothing necessary edges and friction that keep the impacts of decisions legible and knowable. Both negative and positive impacts are often best understood through human interaction, through the friction of human exchange. There are still some public servants working in immigration who have never met face-to-face with someone actually moving through the immigration system. Understanding the different experiences that occur in such a process opens up so many realms for improvement. 

A recent success story that came out of a federal digital project was the simple creation of a receipt notice system that let applicants to Canada know their residency application, which gets sent by post, and is one of the most important documents for their future, was safely received and in the mail room. Prior to the improvement, applicants were put through months of fear and anxiety, hoping their application package had arrived safely and only receiving confirmation when a final decision was made on their file. 

To make the most of technology you have to, somewhat counter-intuitively, make it smaller and grow the role of humans in defining how technology can work and be used. As Kent Aitken summarizes: “We hear that government transformation—as applied to open government, digital government, public sector innovation and technological disruption—is challenging. But that makes it sound like we can realize deep transformation with a little legwork and elbow grease. In reality, the word challenge drastically undersells the level of investment and commitment needed.”

This work could find a home within the emerging stream of thought that suggests the application of technology is an opportunity to reorder the public service. This recent take on modernization seeks to adjust how teams and projects are organized, including greater public involvement, and pursues different systemic approaches to defining and delivering public services. These ideas all have some benefit and currency but do not address the scope of change required. 

As someone that has not worked within government, I can only offer an opinion from the sidelines. The current approach to government modernization and the related buying or building of tech using existing digital norms is problematic. It will both further entrench the status quo and continue to shift power and control from government into the hands of private actors. Democratic institutions should not be automated or privatized by accident. This is the slow danger that is lurking in procurement. Canada needs to reckon with it, along with ethics around the use of technology, broader policy, and more—and not stop at ethics, but also move onwards toward justice. 

 


Acknowledgments

Grateful for the work and scholarship of those that inform this policy space and my thinking, including, among many others: Safiya Noble, Mutale Nkonde, Debbie Chachra, Chris Gilliard, Nasma Ahmed, Lorraine Chuen, Amanda Clarke, Tracey Lauriault, Pamela Robinson, Teresa Scassa, Lorna Brown, Julia Powles, Shannon Mattern, Ellen P. Goodman, and Virginia Eubanks.

Further reading

Chachra: https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/05/gratitude-for-invisible-systems/526344/

Penn: https://www.economist.com/open-future/2018/11/26/ai-thinks-like-a-corporation-and-thats-worrying

DNA story: https://news.vice.com/en_ca/article/wjkxmy/canada-is-using-ancestry-dna-websites-to-help-it-deport-people

Mental health story: https://www.ctvnews.ca/health/government-taps-artificial-intelligence-firm-to-detect-suicide-warning-signs-1.3742668

Shotspotter: https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2018/07/20/ceo-of-shotspotter-explains-tech-said-to-mitigate-gun-violence.html

SafeTTC: https://torontoist.com/2016/07/why-the-ttc-should-rethink-its-new-app-for-harassment/

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