Government to announce plan for mandatory transparency for departments’ algorithms

Minister reveals that plans are scheduled to be finalised and released publicly in the next few weeks – with some agencies or uses of technology likely to be given ‘necessary exemptions’

The government will soon announce plans to mandate that all central government departments publish details of algorithms used to support decision-making – albeit with some “necessary exemptions”.

The Algorithmic Transparency Recording Standard (ATRS) was first introduced two years ago to provide a standardised framework for public bodies to provide information on their use of algorithmic tools and how they are used in making decisions. Since the standard was first created, only seven reports have been published, four of which are from central government agencies.

In its recently published response to a consultation on its proposals for the regulation of artificial intelligence technology, the government characterised work on the standard so far as a “successful pilot”.  The response also revealed plans to make the use of the standard mandatory for Whitehall departments – and, eventually, other public bodies.

“Following a successful pilot of the standard, and publication of an approved cross-government version last year, we will now be making use of the ATRS a requirement for all government departments and plan to expand this across the broader public sector over time,” the response said.

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Since its creation, ATRS has been overseen by the Central Digital and Data Office and the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation – which was recently renamed the Responsible Technology Adoption Unit, and subsumed into its parent agency: the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology.

Minister for tech Saqib Bhatti has now revealed that the two units are engaging across government to agree the terms of the mandatory transparency regime – including some exceptions – as well as the deadline for meeting the new requirements. The full plans agreed via this engagement process will be announced in the coming weeks.

“The Department for Science, Innovation and Technology and the Central Digital and Data Office are working with government departments to finalise the detailed scope (including some limited but necessary exemptions, e.g. for national security reasons), and an agreed timeline for compliance. We intend to agree the detailed policy across government in April,” he said. “This route will provide sufficient means to assess compliance and effectiveness of the ATRS across the full range of uses of algorithmic tools in government, ensuring appropriate and proportionate exemptions are in place to protect public services.”

The government consultation response indicated that, once the details are agreement, the new regime will be subject to a period “phasing in… over the course of the year”.

Bhatti’s comments were made in response to a written parliamentary question from Labour MP Peter Kyle.

Sam Trendall

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