Open and Transparent Government in the Age of Algorithms

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What does an open and transparent federal government look like now and in the future? What are the challenges for access to information in a new digital environment?

Advances in digital technologies are testing the federal government’s openness and transparency like never before. Canadians are empowered by mobile devices, apps that cover every aspect of life, and wireless access that keep us connected. They increasingly demand easier access to, greater responsiveness from, and better interactions with government.

Canadians want relationships with their government that are just as fast, seamless, and responsive as the connections they’ve forged with their favourite consumer brands. It was in this context that participants on the Canada Beyond 150 Open and Transparent Government team identified and explored three areas they believe are most worthy of consideration: algorithmic bias and transparency, access to information, and the digital divide.

Preserving Fairness in Our Algorithmic Future

Machine learning and artificial intelligence based on algorithms are not futuristic technologies: they are here now. They are steering us toward the news we read, products we buy, and people we befriend on social media. They also enable universities to diversify their student bodies, and companies to decide which candidates to hire. Today these algorithms make it possible for you to hail a ride; tomorrow they will likely drive the vehicle for you.

Algorithms have the potential to dramatically improve how government provides services, administers programs, and gathers and shares data. But the data that help machines learn and the ways that automated systems are designed can reflect human biases and challenge our approaches to accountability and fairness.

Unlike media outlets, bookstores or ride-sharing services, the government has a duty to make sure the algorithms it uses do not undermine individuals’ rights to procedural fairness. To preserve fairness, the Open and Transparent Government team proposes that Canada officially acknowledge that the equality rights of Canadians need protection from discriminatory decision-making by algorithms. The government could build on this awareness in many ways—such as creating a position of algorithmic ombudsman. This position could enforce transparency in the use of automated decisions, machine learning, and artificial intelligence.

Facilitating Access to Information

Participants took a hard look at the current request-based access to information regime. They concluded that even if it were amended and improved, there was limited evidence that the regime would meet Canadians’ expectations and, more importantly, improve their trust in government.

That said, the group acknowledged that new and existing technologies could improve the efficiency of the system. First, machine translation could make it possible to publish documents in both official languages. And second, software algorithms may help government find relevant documents and suggest redactions required to safeguard confidential or sensitive information.

The government could also organize itself to deliver better solutions. And it could require officials
to write documents with access in mind, treating confidential or sensitive information in consistent ways to help software determine what should and should not be disclosed.

Bridging a New Digital Divide

Participants identified another challenge related to open and transparent government—one that is not directly related to math and machines: the erosion of Canadians’ trust in their democratic institutions and governments. An increasing body of evidence suggests that the digital platforms that promise to connect us are instead dividing many of us into digital camps, bubbles, and, ultimately, separate solitudes. Gathered in these separate virtual worlds, we might lose ourselves in the perverse pleasures of anger, fear, and pessimism. We risk falling deeply into echo chambers, leading to a country in which growing numbers of people isolate themselves from genuine public discourse
that leads to civic trust, pluralism, and social cohesion.

The government could lead a national conversation to assess the extent of this new digital divide in Canada, and outline its consequences for civic trust, citizen engagement, and democratic institutions. It could support a program of basic research in this domain, culminating in the creation of a royal commission to serve as a national forum for Canadians to discuss digital freedoms in our increasingly connected age. This commission may be exactly what our country needs to create a government—regardless of its political stripe—that is more open and transparent, and above all, more trusted.

“The main challenge for government is to foster a free and open dialogue that sustains public trust.”

Read the team’s full report