NEWS1 December 2021

UK government publishes new standard for algorithmic transparency

AI News Public Sector UK

UK – The UK government has launched one of the world’s first national standards for algorithmic transparency.

Conceptual image of algorithms using a laptop

This move delivers on commitments made in the National AI Strategy and National Data Strategy, strengthening the UK’s position as a global leader in artificial intelligence (AI).

In its landmark review into bias in algorithmic decision-making, the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation (CDEI) recommended that the UK government should place a mandatory transparency obligation on public sector organisations using algorithms to support decisions, especially in cases where they might have a legal or economic impact on individuals.

This call for transparency around the use of AI systems has been strongly supported domestically and internationally, including by civil society organisations such as The Alan Turing Institute and Ada Lovelace Institute, and international organisations such as the OECD and Open Government Partnership.

These organisations have advocated for greater transparency to help manage the risks associated with algorithmic decision-making, bring necessary scrutiny to the role of algorithms in decision-making processes, and help build public trust.

The Cabinet Office’s Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO) has worked closely with the CDEI to design the standard. It also consulted experts from across civil society and academia, as well as the public.

The standard is organised into two tiers. The first includes a short description of the algorithmic tool, including how and why it is being used, while the second includes more detailed information about how the tool works, the dataset/s that have been used to train the model and the level of human oversight. 

The standard will be piloted by several government departments and public sector bodies in the coming months. Following the piloting phase, CDDO will review the standard based on feedback gathered and seek formal endorsement from the Data Standards Authority in 2022.

“Algorithms can be harnessed by public sector organisations to help them make fairer decisions, improve the efficiency of public services and lower the cost associated with delivery,” commented Lord Agnew, minister of state at the Cabinet Office.

“However, they must be used in decision-making processes in a way that manages risks, upholds the highest standards of transparency and accountability, and builds clear evidence of impact. I’m proud that we have today become one of the first countries in the world to publish a cross-government standard for algorithmic transparency… setting an example for organisations across the UK.”

Adrian Weller, programme director for AI at The Alan Turing Institute and member of the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation’s advisory board, added: “Organisations are increasingly turning to algorithms to automate  or support decision-making. We have a window of opportunity to put the right governance mechanisms in place as adoption increases.

“This is a pioneering move by the UK government, which will not only help to build appropriate trust in the use of algorithmic decision-making by the public sector, but will also act as a lever to raise transparency standards in the private sector.”