Category Archives: Public Sector

What is effective ethical governance?

In mid-August I attended an “Ethics and Automation” panel run by HMG’s Automation Taskforce, and hosted by Katie Rhodes, Senior Policy & Strategy Advisor; this is a rather delayed part 2 of my thoughts from the session.

The second speaker was Dr Brent Mittelstadt of the Oxford Internet Institute and Alan Turing Institute. His belief is that only when you can answer the following three questions you can have effective ethical governance:

  1. What is legally required?
  2. What is ethically desirable?
  3. What is technically feasible?

AI has the potential to derive inferances about private life protected characteristics that could be used for online advertising, for example. We know that is technically feasible. It’s definitely legally and ethically dubious.

As many will know, we have a ‘black box’ problem. Often AI is designed in such a way that it cannot be or is not explained. Where decisions have been made (e.g. not to offer a loan, to increase car insurance, etc.) we have to be able to explain what has been done, and to people who are not technical too.

Brent talked about the following paper in the Harvard Journal of Law and Technology 2018, which suggests that making counterfactual explanations can be useful. For example, as a consumer who has a loan application rejected, the bank should instead tell you what would need to be different in order for you to get that loan.

Brent also introduced the need for ethical auditing. As he said:

“Principles alone cannot guarantee ethical AI”.

They are a good starting point, however. Katie took us through Google’s 7 principles, including ‘be socially beneficial’ and ‘be accountable to people’.

As you’d expect, IBM has a set of “Principles for Trust and Transparency” and a longer paper on “Everyday Ethics for Artificial Intelligence“. That paper discusses and provides suggested actions in 5 areas:

  • Accountability
  • Value Alignment
  • Explainability
  • Fairness
  • User Data Rights

Essentially, ethics is everyone’s responsibility, and we have to embed it in right from the very start, through to the very end, of whatever we are creating.

Then, moving from principles allow, Brent shared with us that the Social Science Research Network has been considering how to audit how we implement, measure and govern AI.

Brent added a couple of cautionary remarks to close: models need to be trained with local data, and when we are building a solution, do we really need to use AI within it? (That is, when we have an AI hammer we have to be careful not to just see everything as nails!)

Let’s not forget why we are doing this though. AI has great potential to transform public services and help join up delivery. Bethan mentioned that AI can be put to good use, tackling misinformation online. Brent suggested that we can use AI as a critical mirror, to hold our personal biases to account.

For part 1 of this session, see

Leave a comment

Filed under Automation, Government, Public Sector, Smarter Cities

Ethics and innovation go hand in hand

Last week I attended an “Ethics and Automation” panel run by HMG’s Automation Taskforce, and hosted by Katie Rhodes, Senior Policy & Strategy Advisor; this is part 1 of my thoughts from the session.

The first panellist was Bethan Charnley, Head of Strategic Projects at the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation (CDEI). The role of this organisation is to advise Government on how to maximise the benefits of data.

Bethan raised that often innovation and ethics are posed as contentious, but she sees ethics as an enabler for innovation. (For those of us in tech circles, particularly where we have association with BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, we are also familiar with people thinking that professionalism can stifle innovation. But look at some of the incredible, stunning, unique buildings that we see erected, such as the one below. Does professionalism in Architecture stifle innovation there? Anyway… ).

No, she clearly stated – and I wholeheartedly agree – that “ethics and innovation go hand in hand“.

I would argue that by considering ethics alongside innovation we are far less likely to have the unintended consequences we have seen in examples of AI that has been trialled, and not just trialled but put into production. By considering the ethics we are not prevented from innovating, we just do it better. Innovation is more relevant, more inclusive, more valuable to society.

Furthermore, Bethan challenged us to realise that we have to consider not just the ethics of doing something but the ethics of NOT doing something. I’ll take that one step further: is it ethical if a Government Department does not provide a service to someone who doesn’t know they are entitled to it, when said Department may already have the data that shows they are? (Just a hypothetical question of course.)

Naturally, we can’t have a conversation about ethics in the field of data science without talking about bias in algorithmic decision making. AI could be a way to remove such bias. But if we’re not careful it’s a way to bake that bias in: training with biased data, building bias into algorithms, testing with biased data, and so on. We need to make sure we get insights into every stage of the AI lifecycle.

That’s one of the many reasons why IBM has developed Watson OpenScale. It can trace and explain AI decisions across workflows, and it allows you to intelligently detect and correct bias to improve outcomes.

A good, fun example of this is how we applied AI fairly to pick highlights from Wimbledon. If you think about it, the main courts have the biggest audiences and may make the loudest roars during rallies and wins. But there may still be a fabulous shot, unique win, and so on, on one of the higher number courts. Just as in life where those who shout the loudest are not always the most successful, at Wimbledon you may still have an amazing shot with only a ripple of applause. We wanted to make sure all successes were considered.

I suggested that by considering the ethics we innovate better. By applying fairness to this AI at Wimbledon the result was “a higher-quality selection of sports highlights—and more of them.”

Read that Wimbledon storoy for yourself:

Learn about how KPMG stewards responsible AI with Watson OpenScale:

1 Comment

Filed under Automation, Government, Public Sector

“Blizzard of Demand and a Blizzard of Data”

RPA is dead, long live RPA!

With so much talk about intelligent automation, digital business automation, integrated automation platforms, and other such terms, you’d think that robotic process automation – RPA – doesn’t apply anymore.

But not so. Whilst I believe much automation will indeed come from machine learning, AI – and so on – applied to work that gets done, organisations are still reaping the benefits of RPA. I recently attended an event run by the Government Automation Taskforce and whilst they too are contemplating the value of intelligent automation and are in its early stages, many of the success stories there – such as this one from the HMRC – show RPA has more potential to bring value across the breadth of Her Majesty’s Government.

The title of this blog is a quote from Chief Constable Andy Marsh of Avon and Somerset Police. They have a grand vision of being an outstanding police force, but with “the blizzard of demand and blizzard of data” – 10 million new pieces of data into the force every day – they knew they need to do more in order to turn this into smart decisions. With many data flows and processes, there had to be potential for automation.

They began this process of applying RPA in 2019, after running a Proof of Concept with us at IBM. As Nick Lilley, Director of IT at Avon and Somerset Police, said, this was about “extending and augmenting” the police force, freeing up capacity to work on more activity where humans can truly add value.

Of course, key to implementing RPA to make sure you get the best value is not to automate bad, poor or unnecessary process. This is an opportunity to apply ‘Lean’* or ‘Lean Six Sigma’ to truly understand processes, improve on them, and collect relevant metrics to support continuous improvement.

One of those processes they decided to tackle was uniform ordering. With a backlog of 700 orders, that would take 2 months for a human worker to process, the digital worker they designed dealt with that backlog in just 2 weeks.

The public wants officers on the street and RPA is helping Avon and Somerset achieve exactly that. This video tells you all about it.

And this is not the only example of recent RPA success. When I attended #ThinkGov2020 I learned about what has been done at the Veterans Benefits Administration from Dr Paul Lawrence, Undersecretary for Benefits. With regards to their intake, it took a long time to move from fax/email to an examiner’s hands and they desperately needed intelligent workflow.

By applying RPA they were able to turn a 10 day process in 1 afternoon’s work. Furthermore, the folks doing that manual work had great experience and insight into the business and they were reskilled into higher paid jobs.

The VBA needed to be agile to implement new benefits, and RPA has been an enabler for this. The organisation did have to deal with a few myths, such as the belief that a wet signature was necessary for approvals, when in fact it turned out it wasn’t.

As Dr Lawrence said, these days we can get a pizza and see it tracked by the hour – why can’t we do the same with benefit applications?

(As always, if you’d like to know more about how automation can help the public sector deliver service more effectively, or even to discuss what we mean by RPA or intelligent automation then get in touch.)

*I searched on ‘lean’ to find an appropriate link to add to this blog. Turns out every day is a school day: according to Wikipedia, ‘Lean, also known as purple drank and several other names, is a recreational drug cocktail, prepared by combining prescription-grade cough syrup with a soft drink and hard candy.” I definitely did not mean that!

Leave a comment

Filed under Automation, Government, Public Sector

“There’s nothing like a crisis to make long term change”

At #ThinkGov2020 last week Ginni Rometty, IBM’s Executive Chairman, had a conversation with Jessica Tisch, Commissioner of the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT), NYC. At one point Jessica made the statement I’ve borrowed for this blog’s title.

It’s so true.

For a bit of background, Jessica Tisch moved into this role earlier in the year, and had 3 months to get to know what was happening internally and how it worked. Then COVID-19 hit and it was a baptism of fire for her. Firstly, she had to take the city’s workforce and get them ready to work from home, setting up remote access and MFA, distributing a great many laptops and such like.

The second phase for Jessica has been working with agencies to help them deliver traditional services and new services. For example, when people couldn’t leave their homes this left 1 million people food insecure. Her actions meant that meals could be delivered direct to people’s doors. Today they deliver 1 million meals a day. They built the service in a weekend. Folks can sign up online or call to register. They put the city’s taxi drivers – whose businesses had plummeted – to work. In Jessica’s words:

“we created a free Uber-eats in a weekend”.

It just shows what we can do when we have to – and how we can be imaginative when we have to. One of the challenges I have is making the time to think, to be creative. Anyway, I digress…

Jessica also told a story of which I am particularly proud. NYC has 1800 state schools with 1.1 million students. Whilst digital can be such an enabler, in the words of Ginni, it can create a “bigger have/have not society”. Approximately 1/3 of these students did not have access to an internet-connected device and therefore wouldn’t have access to education at home. NYC reached out to many suppliers for help; 3 stepped up. Apple provided 300K iPads. T-Mobile offered unlimited data plans for under $8/month, which made it affordable and achievable. IBM provisioned all those 300,000 iPads so they arrived with the students equipped with every app needed to support the remote learning curriculum, which meant they were ready to use out of the box. Now the most underserved can be included.

Ginni talked about what one Governor had said – there will be no more snow days! Now when it snows the students will be able to access their learning from home. I suspect there will be disappointment there!

And from what Tisch said, this new scheme is here to stay.

Ginni finished with some words that really struck me:

“Now is the time for leaders to lead with both their head AND their heart; the head deals with the mechanics, the heart will help deal with the systemic issues … we will have a chance to build back better.”

Then she closed saying that the crisis has show that we can find:

  • New ways to work
  • New ways to partner
  • New ways to fix some of what have been intractable problems (such as disease, work, social inequality)

Lets rise to that challenge!

Leave a comment

Filed under Public Sector, Smarter Cities

What I learned about hybrid cloud at #ThinkGov2020

I have a confession: this may not be quite all I learned; it was 4 hours worth and my hand got tired taking notes!

ThinkGov Digital was the IBM conference for Federal in the US, which took place on 1st July. I attended to see what would be relevant to the UK; quite a lot it transpires. Here’s my interpretation of what I did capture:

As usual, Arvind Krishna’s keynote struck a chord with me. He recognised that it’s been tough for the public sector recently with social unrest and the rise of unemployment. COVID-19 has shown us that technology that enables innovation, speed and insight is of most importance. Technology platforms determine how well you pivot, serve citizens, scale and respond to a crisis. Naturally, hybrid cloud and AI drive that digital transformation.

Arvind Kirshna, IBM CEO

Focusing on hybrid cloud, Arvind talked of 4 imperatives that drive hybrid cloud: history, choice, physics and law.

On history, rarely do organisations start from scratch, certainly not in the public sector. Processes are well integrated into systems. The role of hybrid cloud is to meet you where you are not.

Re: choice, relying on one public cloud locks you in and locks you in to only one company’s innovation.

Physics <one of my favourite subjects at school as it happens> has a role too. You cannot run a robotic floor that needs swift response times through a cloud. Government may not run too many of those, but something that springs to mind is the need for the Met Office to run its intensive modelling on premises but use public cloud for its analysis and reporting.

And there’s law, the legal frameworks and sovereignty issues with which we need to comply. IBM provides the reliability and continuous security that government demands for mission critical workloads.

Arvind tells us we’ve made some bold bets:

  • We’ve joined forces with Red Hat to provide the platform that will enable you to build apps that will run anywhere
  • We are committed to interoperability
  • Some clouds are more suited for some workloads. We believe IBM is the best for regulated workloads.
  • Open is the foundation for IBM Cloud
  • We have 190 cloud native, open services that can run anywhere
  • We have start of the art cryptography, meet current standards such as FIPS 140-2
  • We allow you to Keep Your Own Key (for k8 apps) – you own your encryption keys and the HSMs that protect them.

Following some discussion on AI (I’ll probably blog about that another day), Arvind went on to state IBM’s commitments to you:

  • we’ll continue to deepen our understanding of your needs,
  • we’ll help you identify opportunities to deliver value to the people you serve, and
  • we’ll continue to be a leader and foster an entrepreneurial culture.

Naturally, Arvind spoke on more, but I’ll perhaps include that in a future blog…

A little later, in the “Future Proofing Government with Hybrid Cloud” session with Paul Smith, SVP and General Manager, Public Sector, Red Hat, his arguments extended Arvind’s message and included:

  • The technical debt that public sector is trying to deal with demands a hybrid, multi-cloud architecture < I would add that it also demands the ability to manage the heritage technology as well as the transition and target platforms>
  • What we offer is a foundation that allows you to move workloads anywhere you want any time you need <although I add that I don’t necessarily expect you to do that often!>
  • Not all clouds are equal; IBM’s is the most open and the most secure
My well-thumbed copy of The Cloud Playbook

I recently had the pleasure of digesting ‘The Cloud Playbook’ pulled together by the team behind the One Government Cloud Strategy here in the UK. Unsurprisingly, the messages overlap: lock-in, openness, and the challenges to transition. Building native digital services in cloud is not so hard, but transforming what’s left behind can be. We have some good ideas about how to do that – from a technology, skills and culture perspective. Do shout if you’d like to know more.

I learned a lot more at #ThinkGov2020 – on AI, automation and stories of which to be proud, so will share those here soon too.

Leave a comment

Filed under Public Sector