Strengthening trust in public sector technology

  • Posted on November 29, 2021
  • Estimated reading time 5 minutes

The cornerstone of the relationship between citizen and state is trust. And as the public sector embraces new technologies and offers innovative digital services, fostering trust is going to be an increasing challenge.

According to Accenture research from 2020, 46% of UK citizens have low trust in government services, while Edelman's most recent trust barometer found that most consumers trust businesses more than the government.

Building trust with digital ethics
Clearly, the public sector has some unique obstacles to overcome if it wants to adopt technologies to help get the most from its finite resources. There's simply too much to gain from AI, data analytics, and automation – both for back-office processes and citizen-focused services – to turn these products down.

So, the question is ‘how can we proceed down this path responsibly?’ Without citizens' trust and confidence, public sector technology investments will fail to meet adoption or delivery targets. That’s why public sector organizations are working to cultivate a practical digital ethics program.

What is digital ethics?
Digital ethics is the application of values – such as fairness, inclusivity, accountability, and transparency – throughout the technology lifecycle, from design and development through implementation and operation.

If done right, it will resemble more established practices like quality control, information security, and compliance, with the key difference being a focus on questions of ethical impact rather than rules or risks.

Addressing concerns and focusing on the positive
Avanade recently convened an executive roundtable with leaders from across the UK public sector. Specific questions included, "how can we capitalize on the efficiency of AI without perpetuating bias?" and "how can we personalize digital services without violating privacy concerns?". These concerns likely sound familiar to most executives, although the context may vary significantly from one organization to the next.

It's easy to understand why these questions are coming up so often. In a time where public trust in government is waning, a negative news headline about diversity, inclusion, or privacy has the potential to do serious reputational damage.

However, digital ethics is about more than minimizing risks and avoiding negative headlines. A robust digital ethics program can enhance public sector offerings by addressing citizens' core concerns, highlighting the ethically positive benefits of a particular project. This also helps to boost employee loyalty and can accelerate adoption of innovative technologies.

From theory to practice: Building a digital ethics framework
Public sector organizations need to move from conversations about digital ethics theory to actual program implementation. But what does digital ethics look like in practice? We all know that concepts like fairness, transparency, trust and responsibility are critical – but these are just overarching concepts, not practical steps.

To help our clients put their values into practice, we created a 50-point assessment framework, which empowers public sector organizations to embed digital ethics into their policies and services.

The framework consists of 30 potential ethical impacts for any digital initiative, along with 20 control points to help maintain alignment with ethical values. While this is just one tool needed for a comprehensive program, it guides those crucial first conversations about where to focus and why.

The five key steps for putting your framework into practice
Embedding digital ethics into your organization won't happen overnight. It takes time, perseverance, and careful thought. By making use of our framework, you can break it down into five manageable steps:

  1. Stakeholder engagement: Digital ethics cannot simply be handed over to the IT department and considered 'done'. It's an issue that's relevant to every employee – from the boardroom to the back office. Organizational buy-in from the leadership team is vital. Still, your organization should also communicate and engage with its employees, citizens, and customers, giving them opportunities to raise concerns and flag potential issues.

  2. Impact assessment: Using Avanade's 50-point framework, you can better understand the impact of your digital projects and systems. Impacts vary widely, from health and safety and mental wellbeing to accessibility and privacy issues. Some projects and initiatives will have few, if any, serious ethical implications and therefore need little intervention; others may require more scrutiny.

  3. Consider values: Beyond meeting compliance requirements and reducing risk, you should also ensure that your technology projects align with your organization's values. Ultimately, the goal is to make sure the experience of your employees, citizens, customers, and other stakeholders reflects the values articulated in your mission statement or annual report.

  4. Assign control responsibilities: Your impact assessment will guide you to implement technical and process controls that mitigate identified issues. Remember, controls are not one-off implementations but solutions that should be continually monitored and reviewed to ensure they are fit for purpose. Some of these will overlap substantially with risk and compliance controls, while others will require new investment. What do these controls look like? Examples include bias testing for analytical engines, access controls to prevent misuse of data, manual oversight to make sure services are delivered as expected, and a clear communication channel for stakeholders who don't understand or appreciate how they've been impacted.

  5. Celebrate your successes as you improve: Reimagining your approach to digital ethics is no easy task. It's important to celebrate successes along the way: communicate with your employees when an initiative works well – whether it's an increase in adoption rate, better customer satisfaction scores, or even positive employee feedback. And be sure to highlight upcoming projects, too. They demonstrate your organization’s journey of continuous improvement.

Set the wheels in motion
Contact us today to find out how you can build and deliver a practical digital ethics program starting with Avanade's 50-point framework.

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