The citizen is not a dataset

Research report

Relationship between citizen and government: trust is essential

The citizen is increasingly affected by the government’s use of data and algorithms. That use is not always evident and transparent. Nevertheless, it does affect the trust and confidence that the general public has in public sector authorities.

That people should be able to trust government processes is one of the fundamental tenets of our constitutional state. Trust demands more than just legal and ethical safeguards; it calls for a balanced relationship between the citizen and the government. That relationship becomes even more important in today’s ‘data society’.

Given the complexity of modern technology, the mechanisms underlying some government processes are becoming less transparent. They are, as it were, disappearing into a black box. At the same time, the volume of information about citizens which is collected, stored, processed and shared by government agencies is increasing. Put simply, the government knows far more about the individual. It is therefore important that, in addition to legal and ethical safeguards, our data society is subject to standards and values that are endorsed and observed by all. It falls to the government to apply these standards and values within everyday practice. This is particularly important if it is to foster and maintain the citizen’s trust in its use of data and algorithms.

Clarity, accessibility and a solution-oriented approach

The government is responsible for its use of data and algorithms. (For the sake of simplicity, we use the term ‘the government’ to apply to all public sector authorities.) It must make all decisions relating to the use, development and application of data technology in a planned and conscientious manner. It falls to the government to ensure the quality of data-processing hardware and software, as well as the lawful and ethical use of data and algorithms. The government is responsible for all aspects of the development of the models and for their use.

This is an ongoing process which demands active input from all government agencies. Moreover, the experiences of the citizen, as well as the citizen’s own wishes and requirements, should play a crucial role throughout the cycle of development, application and the use of output. Again, it is the government’s responsibility to ensure that the citizen’s perspective is placed to the fore, that there can be meaningful human contact, and that there remains opportunity for individualised ‘bespoke’ solutions where circumstances warrant. In the National Ombudsman’s view, the government will fulfil its responsibility by observing three key principles: clarity, accessibility and a solution-oriented approach. These principles are discussed and further elaborated in this document.

Ombudsman’s vision of appropriate use of data and algorithms by government

Offer clarity

  • by identifying all use of data and algorithms, and the purpose of such use
  • by determining in advance who will be involved in the processes, when and how
  • by proactively offering clear information about the use of data and algorithms
  • by observing legal (legislative) and ethical frameworks whereby responsibilities are duly assigned.

Be accessible

  • by knowing which individual the data relates to, and ensuring that he or she is able to make contact
  • by involving citizens to the greatest extent possible
  • by accepting and responding to questions or complaints about (the use of) data and algorithms
  • by ensuring consistency and cooperation, i.e. acting as a unified government.           

Focus on solutions

  • by determining beforehand the purposes for which data and algorithms will – and will not – be used
  • by incorporating an ‘emergency brake’ mechanism
  • by ensuring opportunity for discretion, individualisation and personal contact
  • by maintaining an ongoing dialogue and by learning from any mistakes made.