Report finds humans, not algorithms, rule in NZ government

Report finds humans, not algorithms, rule in NZ government

Opportunities to improve the way algorithms are used in government

Humans remain in control of government decision making, report finds

Humans remain in control of government decision making, report finds

Credit: Benjamin Nelan

A review by the Government chief data steward and chief digital officer has found humans, rather than computers, decide on almost all significant decisions made by New Zealand government agencies.

Based on studies of the use of algorithms in 14 agencies, the report highlights how algorithms help agencies to deliver better policies and services by giving a better understanding of what works and for whom.

"As agencies continue to develop new algorithms, it’s important to preserve appropriate human oversight and ensure that the views of key stakeholders, notably the people who will receive or participate in services, are given appropriate consideration," the report said.

The government launched the review in May to ensure that transparency and procedural fairness are maintained.

While agencies are applying a range of safeguards and assurance processes in relation to their algorithms use, there are opportunities for increased collaboration and sharing of good practice across government, the report found.

"There is also scope to ensure that all of the information that is published explains, in clear and simple terms, how algorithms are informing decisions that affect people in significant ways," findings stated.

The government's commitment to Treaty-based partnership should also be reflected, embedding a te ao Māori perspective into the development and use of algorithms.

"In addition to connecting expertise across government, agencies could also benefit from a fresh perspective by looking beyond government for privacy, ethics, and data expertise," the report added.

"This could be achieved by bringing together a group of independent experts that agencies could consult for advice and guidance."

Algorithms are enabling innovative solutions to complex problems, case studies revealed.

However, the report also suggested how the use of algorithms can be improved for both fairness and transparency and serves as a reminder of the need to take care in their use.

All of the algorithms considered in the review were embedded in policies that deliver "clear public benefit", the report said, ranging from protecting New Zealand from external risks and threats, to streamlining processes and improving efficiency. 

"The value of employing this technology ranges from the immediate, such as reducing costs to the taxpayer and speeding up the delivery of services, to the indirect, such as increasing New Zealand’s productivity and improving the lives of people by reducing social harm."

Recommendations include: maintaining human oversight; involving those who will be affected; promoting transparency and awareness; reviewing (regularly) algorithms that inform significant decisions, and; monitoring for adverse effects.

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