How do we ensure that public online services are fit for a democratic society?

The discussion at the recent Digital Leaders Annual Lecture and the attitudes of those I met at the reception afterwards caused me to ponder some of the unresolved issues regarding the ethics of public service delivery.  We need to find a way forward that marries their enthusiasm with the “well informed scepticism” of those who voted for me after the recent Real Time Club debate. If fear, however, that the multilateral debates over privacy, surveillance, security, quality of service and choice with regard to on-line public services appear stuck in a set of deepening grooves.

I am currently enjoying Peter Hennessy‘s “Distilling the Frenzy” which my son bought me for Christmas and was struck by his use of a Mark Twain quote “History does not repeat itself but it sometimes rhymes” in the chapter on “The power and the story”.  I apologise to those who think that what follows is repetition rather than rhyme.

Back in May 2008, I blogged  on the conclusions of the session on “ethical aspects of the use of Governmental on-line services” held as part of a commission funded workshop on Ethics and E-inclusion that fed into both the ETICA and E-inclusion for the Aged programmes. I then suspected, correctly as it turned out, that this session would be edited out of the report back – if only because the issues raised went rather wider than E-inclusion. In the event, only the material with regard to ageing was picked up and later the ETICA work steered clear of the minefield that is the ethics of public service delivery. This morning I checked my 2008 blog against the rapporteur’s record of the meeting (which I still have on file) and it was not far out.

The discussion was introduced by Bill Dutton (Director of the Oxford Internet Institute) and Peter Ferdinand, (Director of the Centre for Studies in Democratization, Warwick University). The participants included officials with policy responsibility in a number of Eastern European countries as well as Billy Hawkes, now the lead Data Protection Commissioner for Apple, eBay, Experian, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Paypal, Twitter and all the others who base their European, and occasionally global, operations on Dublin and its suburbs.
Back in 2008 we began by agreeing with, or at least not questioning, a number of principles regarding the transition to e-Government and digital services. These can be summarized as:

•    The transition should never erode the quality of citizenship: it should enhance it or be neutral. It should be based on incentives rather than force, because access growth has plateaued and the final 1/3 may be impossible

•    The digital divide is largely socio/economic. People should not be penalised for not using on-line services if they do not wish to: many have access problems including the elderly and illiterate. The state has to create the opportunities and incentives to acquire e-literacy and should not set an impossibly high standard (e.g. use of browsers, security tools etc.)  

•    E-Data should not be subsequently mis-used against the citizen, lost, mislaid, sold etc.

•    We need to recognize different policies and attitudes towards the use of data in different parts of the EU, including different levels and traditions of security and trust, this will complicate any attempts at harmonization 
We also noted that Citizens are accustomed to exercise digital choice, with older people using mobiles (including alarm systems) in preference. [Note that this workshop took place in 2008 and that was already the case across most of the EU, with the UK seriously lagging].

We homed in on six recommendations, which were recorded by the rapporteur as:

1)    Governments have to be strongly encouraged to offer citizens online services via their choice of channel and of intermediary and these means have to be multilingual and secure.

2)    Research programmes should be encouraged to ensure that the technologies used for e-Government services are fit to be used by the majority of the citizens. Given that the majority of those dependent on such services are disabled, this requires a focus on mixing audio, text and particularly video-streaming technologies.

3)    Governments should use the e-participation technologies in order to gather views on the channels people would like to use, as well as on the concerns and priorities for services and to collect feedback on the quality and relevance of the services they receive.

4)    It is unethical for Governments to demand information from citizens that they cannot keep secure and confidential.

5)    There is a need for programmes to identify and demonstrate good practice for the secure sharing of data across organisational boundaries, including across national borders.

6)    There is a need for greatly improved gradations of choice under the control of the individual: with allowance for changes of time and circumstance as well as with whom the information is to be shared under what conditions – rather than simplistic one-off choices or defaults. This approach raises many questions as to who authorizes or authenticates the choice as well as of cost and practicality..


A few footnotes may help readers better appreciate the “rhymes”
This was a pan-European workshop and English was not the first language of the rapporteur.

Surveys showing more than 80% of the UK as on-line users commonly count “more than never” as a user. Is some-one whose only contact with the on-line world is when she falls over and presses her alarm, really an Internet user? Even if we count them, have we really reached over 2/3 rd of users willing to transact with government on-line.

The UK was (and is) unusual in having so many “dependent” on public services who are not actually disabled or illiterate. This links, of course, to recent/current concerns over immigration from other parts of the EU.

Video-streaming technologies were then being trialed across Eastern Europe because they could not get Western software houses interested in helping develop cheap platforms for multi-lingual, audio-visual apps. The Chinese have since helped fill this gap – to our cost.   

As I listened to the conversations after their annual lecture. I wondered how many of the “Digital Leaders” of today not only agree with the above principles and recommendations but put them into practice, bearing in mind their proclivity for using services whose business models rely on selling our data outside the reach of EU, let alone UK, regulators.