Digital Ethics – a key component in delivering public digital services


Written by Jen Rodvold​, Head of Ethics & Sustainability Consulting, Sopra Steria

We are living in a digital world, with more and more public services moving online. From improving efficiency, to making services faster and more accessible, technology can drive positive change in public services and society. Yet, without the careful consideration of ethics, there is a risk that technology can be discriminatory, exploitative and violate privacy.

Just look at incidents such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal that misused personal data about Facebook users to micro-target and influence choices in the US election. 

Or an artificial intelligence (AI) recruiting tool that showed bias against women. 

These are just a couple of examples that can significantly impact the level of trust among citizens, especially when data is being used to provide fundamental services.

Jen Rodvold​, Head of Ethics & Sustainability Consulting at Sopra Steria, explains: “Advanced technologies such as AI and better use of data in digital services present huge opportunities, they also present significant risks. Ethics helps to both mitigate those risks, and create more value, such as increasing user engagement and revealing opportunities to deliver societal benefits. It’s crucial we recognise that ethics needs to lie at the heart of successful technology implementations.”

Delivering public digital services with an ethics-by-design approach has moved up the agenda for government organisations.  

But how are government organisations making progress on digital ethics? What are the UK citizens’ expectations and beliefs when it comes to digital technology and data use by government? What could help citizens overcome their current trust gap with public digital services? 

Jen Rodvold and her Digital Ethics team surveyed over 1,000 UK citizens, and carried out a series of interviews with senior government decision-makers to ascertain how digital ethics was perceived, and how it was being acted upon. The results have indicated that digital ethics does drive quality, however there is a fair amount of resistance about how digital ethics should be framed and what guardrails should be put in place. 

According to this ODI report, nearly 9 in 10 people (87%) feel it is important or very important that organisations they interact with use data about them ethically.

“Citizens need more assurance that designing, implementing and managing digital services is done with ethical considerations at the core;” says Jen. 

“There are ample rewards for those organisations that take an ethics-by-design approach; most notably citizen trust, which is critical to all successful digital transformation programmes,” adds Jen. 


Let’s take a look in detail at what Sopra Steria’s research underlines.

The research has discovered that a small majority of respondents (58%) believe digital technology should be used to run public services. However, the findings also suggest an overall lack of trust in digital services, with just over half (54%) trusting them in general.  


Mistrust around using data to deliver public services

The report showed that over half of UK citizens don’t know what personal data government organisations collect about them, and less than half (46%) believe organisations use data fairly and effectively to assess people for services. This suggests a significant opportunity for improved transparency in the implementation of new technology.  

“Introducing ethics into the data lifecycle, and communicating more effectively about how this information is collected, shared and used during decision-making gives organisations a clear head start in delivering trust,” says Jen. 


Citizens expect organisations to go beyond compliance

Citizens expect government organisations to go beyond compliance when it comes to data use. 70% of respondents believe that more could be done to protect their personal data – further than the legal requirements that all organisations must adhere to. 

“Making better use of data and digital technologies presents huge opportunities to better serve all citizens,” says Jen. 

“A more comprehensive approach to digital ethics can help governments in mitigating serious risk and increasing citizen trust levels,” adds Jen. 

Government bodies should design and manage services with digital ethics principles, such as safety, privacy, fairness, accessibility, sustainability and transparency, built in.

By taking these steps, and communicating effectively about them with citizens, public sector organisations could start to close the trust gap, and, in doing so, lay the foundations for more effective engagement of citizens with digital services. This could then unlock myriad benefits, including reduced costs through more efficient public services, and improved policymaking and service provision through greater access to higher quality, richer data.

Join this must-see webinar to find out more 

If you would like to find out more about the role that digital ethics plays in delivering successful digital public services, sign up for this must-see webinar:

Trust, transparency and technology: the role of digital ethics in delivering successful digital public services.

Click here to book your place. 

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