Developing the ETAPAS Code of Conduct for ethical technology adoption in the public services

Sven-Ove Hansson, professor of philosophy at the Karolinska Institutet and ETAPAS Scientific Director, is currently working on the ETAPAS Code of Conduct for the adoption of Disruptive Technologies in public administration and service provision. In order to give you some details on this crucial step for the project as well as for public sector organisations, we thought to publish a short interview with him. His answers will guide you to the heart of the matter, enjoy your reading!

Why do we need to think about ethics when we deal with technology?

  • There is a long experience showing that new technologies can give rise to ethical and social problems. Often, these problems have been discovered too late, when it is difficult and expensive to make the changes that would solve them. We should there try to identify and deal with them at the earliest possible stage. Ideally, ethical and social considerations should have a major role already in the development phase. However, this does not always happen, and even when it does, some effects may come as surprises during the introduction of a new technology. Therefore, it is important to carefully follow the early phases of adoption and implementation, so that ethical issues can be dealt with as early and as efficiently as possible.

–  What makes ethical adoption of Disruptive Technologies important for the public services?

  • New technologies, including artificial intelligence, can be used to improve public services and make the administration more efficient. But at the same time, the public rightly has high ethical demands on the public sector. For instance, the demands on explainability and equal treatment are usually higher in the public sector than in the private sector. We also expect decisions in the public sector to be rule-based to a much higher extent than decisions in private companies. This all adds up to putting a strong focus on ethics in the introduction of new and potentially disruptive technologies in the public sector. But this is also an opportunity for the public sector to develop solutions that can also be applied by others.

To what extent are ethical risks and impacts foreseeable in this context? What are the main risks that PAs face when adopting these technologies?

  • Basically, when dealing with new technologies, some but not all of the ethical risks and impacts can be foreseen. That is why be need both to be proactive and to closely follow what happens in practice during the introduction and early implementation of new and potentially disruptive technologies. Much of the discussion has focused on problems of potential biases affecting some members of the public negatively, and on lacking explainability that can make people feel powerless. These are problems that we can and should attack proactively. 

–  As the scientific director of ETAPAS, what do you expect will be the main scientific contribution of the project? What other contribution would you like to see generated from the project? What challenges (if any) do you anticipate?

  • Surprisingly little research has been devoted to the effects of disruptive technologies in the public sector. Therefore, we can make a difference by clearly identifying the specific issues that the public sector has to deal with and showing ways to deal with them. A major challenge is how to make our results generalizable. We will learn a lot from our use cases, but the most difficult part may be to make our conclusions both concrete and generally applicable for the public sector as a whole.

The ETAPAS project is producing a generic code of conduct for ethical DT adoption in the public services, which you are leading. Can you tell us a bit more about that? How would public administrations go about adopting it?

  • There is a long experience of ethical codes in other contexts, such as codes for a profession, a university, or a company. In all these contexts, the process leading up to a code is highly important. Codes that have been adopted in a top-down process tend to have much less impact than codes that have been discussed and worked out in a participative process. But on the other hand, you need something concrete to start with in order to get such a process going. The recommendation is therefore to use our generic code as a starting point in a participative process.