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Finalising the work – Report: Releasing the Algorithm Charter

The purpose of this briefing is to provide an update on the development of a voluntary algorithm charter and seek your agreement for it to be released during Techweek 2020 (27 July-2 August).

The Charter is part of the wider algorithm transparency work that also includes a workforce capability initiative. This work delivers on our Open Government Partnership commitment to increase the transparency and accountability of how government uses algorithms.

A draft communications plan was attached outlining our proposed approach to publicity regarding the Charter.

Recommended actions

The following are the recommendations that were presented:

  1. Note that Stats NZ has revised the Charter to include a risk-based approach to prioritising which algorithms are focused on by agencies. This responds to the key issue of scope raised both through public consultation and in discussions with agencies.
  2. Note that while Stats NZ believe this flexible approach will achieve the aim of signalling a public commitment to the responsible use of algorithms, a small number of government agencies and some members of the public are likely to believe more specificity is required.
  3. Note that Stats NZ intend to review whether the charter is achieving its intended aims one year after it takes effect.
  4. Agree to release the Charter during Techweek 2020 (27 July-2 August).
  5. Note the appended draft communications plan to support the release of the Charter.
  6. Agree to share this briefing with all Ministers.

Published on 9 July 2020.

Report: Releasing the Algorithm charter [PDF 930 KB]

Contents

Background

A risk-based approach to the charter responds to concern about definitions

Some concerns remain about risk matrix definitions

Release of the charter

Next steps

Attachments

Background

The development of an algorithm charter was endorsed by Data and Digital Ministers in June 2019. Officials have since consulted with the public and other government officials on a draft charter, and made updates in response to a wide range of feedback.

This work was delayed due to the COVID 19 lockdown and the necessity of focussing on a cross-government pandemic response. Following the lockdown, we have again been able to progress discussions across government on releasing the Charter.

A risk-based approach to the charter responds to concern about definitions

A key issue raised both through public consultation and in discussions with agencies has been the definition of what would be within the scope of the Algorithm charter, based on the definition of ‘algorithms.’ To acknowledge the complexity of this issue, we have included a brief discussion as part of the front page of the Charter, referencing other sources.

A number of public submissions are concerned that creating an artificial definition, such as ‘operational algorithms’ used for the algorithm assessment report, could suggest that agencies are not extending good practice to all of their advanced data processes.

Many government agencies are concerned that adopting too broad a scope would incur significant compliance costs for signatories and stifle innovation in the use of technology to deliver public services.

As we discussed with you on 15 June 2020, we have now developed a final version of the Charter which strikes a balance between these concerns, through the application of a risk matrix. This enables agencies to make a self-assessment for each algorithm, or group of algorithms, based on the probability of a negative impact occurring, and the severity of the impact. Based on this assessment the Charter provisions either could, should, or must be applied.

We believe this flexible approach responds to most of the concerns that have been raised in relation to scope and allows agencies to focus on those algorithms assessed to pose significant risks of unintended harms on New Zealanders. 8. Most of the agencies that we have been working with support this approach and many have indicated their willingness to sign the Charter when it is released.

Some concerns remain about risk matrix definitions

While most of the agencies we have been working with support the Charter text, a small number of agencies have raised concerns about the definition of the terms used in the risk matrix, how they will be applied, and how the impact of the Charter will be measured. We understand these agencies are seeking detailed definitions of each category in order to implement the Charter.

The Charter is not designed to be a technical document. It is a public commitment to good practice, and we believe that it’s reasonable for agencies to make their own assessments about likelihood and risk and how this should be applied to their work.

To further alleviate these concerns we are creating an implementation support document. This includes several worked examples of algorithms supplied by agencies to illustrate the application of the risk matrix Charter. However, we also acknowledge that we will need to learn as we go, and we anticipate updating this document based on Charter implementation across government.

The risk matrix portion of the Charter may also be criticised by some civil society representatives for not going far enough, by allowing agencies to make an independent assessment of risk. Through our experience of working closely with agencies through this process, we know that they have the best interests of the public in mind and have the most subject matter expertise to make effective judgements about risk of harm to New Zealanders.

We have also introduced a one-year review period to enable the Government Chief Data Steward to make an assessment of how well the self-assessment process is working. This review will consider whether the Charter is meeting it’s intended aims and consider the impact of the Charter, based on the feedback of both government agencies and civil society representatives.

We believe these mitigations are appropriate to address the concerns of both agencies and some civil society representatives, and accordingly, we propose to proceed with releasing the Charter, noting the possibility that some agencies may be unwilling to sign it.

Release of the Charter

The final Algorithm Charter is attached to this paper as Appendix One. We propose that you release the Charter via an announcement made during Techweek 2020 (27 July - 2 August). The Government Chief Data Steward will support your announcement through a range of activities that week, including seeking to publish an editorial, and discussing the Charter at Techweek events.

Next steps

On 9 July, the Government Chief Data Steward wrote to agencies formally inviting them to be a signatory of the Charter.

A draft communications plan for the release of the Charter is attached to this paper as Appendix Two (not attached). We will work closely with your office ahead of Techweek 2020 to finalise release details and the list of inaugural Charter signatories.

Attachments

The final Algorithm charter

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