New York’s City Council recently passed a bill to examine fairness in municipal algorithms, the computerized “automated decision systems” that affect residents of the city — from setting bail to scheduling fire safety inspections.
This oversight certainly makes sense. New York is one of the world’s most advanced cities for using analytics to improve services. Yet the real issue is not whether the algorithms are fair; it’s whether governance is fair.
Each day, public employees take actions driven by rules, some of which are obsolete and some of which allow, or even unintentionally encourage, inequitable results. Algorithms aggravate inequity when the machines “train” on information biased by these decisions.
With a thoughtful, interconnected approach to employing today’s technologies, however, we can broadly reshape the fairness of government decisions and deliver more equitable results. We are currently witnessing a once-in-a-century opportunity to update government’s operating system, akin to updating your iPhone’s iOS.
Breathtaking developments in analytics, social engagement and open data tantalize public officials. To truly get the most from these opportunities, government must run in a way that allows City Hall to be more collaborative, more accessible and more personalized.
Under this new OS, government would use digital systems to capture and organize far more data from its agencies and nonprofit partners, from residents and public employees. By widely sharing the resulting information, and by prioritizing speed and citizen engagement, local government can radically change how it operates, including a more comprehensive ability to monitor and promote equity.
What does this look like? Analytics can assist in determining whether every neighborhood is receiving a similar quality of services and speedy response, for instance. Officials can use data to determine which interventions or nonprofit contractors produce the best results, improving how social services are provided to struggling families. They can even see whether a program disproportionately benefits one group over another.
This new OS would recognize that often-ignored residents have important insights too, by offering well-visualized open data to unlock ideas and identify biases. In Los Angeles, the city’s GeoHub platform collects and presents information from disparate sources to allow easy analysis of geospatial data.
With this information and new municipal social platforms, all citizens can impact how services are provided or new policies are developed, closing imbalances between the well-connected and those who have traditionally had little voice.
Cities like Philadelphia have started using technology to reach out to communities, such as encouraging residents to text their opinions about a range of local issues. A simple way to learn whether a service or city worker is fair is to have a robust system in place to ask — and then to tally and analyze the results.
Technology drives fairness when it removes complexity, which inherently favors the English-speaking, the well-educated and the well-connected. Compare the experiences of a struggling family that wants to modernize its kitchen and a family that can afford an expediter to stand in the lines for construction permits.
Government needs to be designed around what the business community calls the user experience. The citizen will find every interaction with the city easier when officials are cognizant of how words, graphics, systems and nudges produce understanding or sow distrust.
Interactions with the city should be clear and sensible, regardless of how a resident is communicating with government. In New York City’s new 311 center, for example, the city proposes to personalize the information that residents can access via phone, text or by logging in to a new platform.
Communicating data in a more usable, digestible way can change the jobs of city workers, too. Agency managers can give frontline staff — say, a child welfare worker — the discretion and information she needs to make a real difference.
Analytics can uncover unwitting biases in the decisions of these newly empowered workers, too, by evaluating their day-to-day results.
With its focus on equity in government algorithms, the City Council has correctly identified an important issue. But the approach should be broadened to fully incorporate the power of technology to produce a fairer, more accessible government.
Goldsmith, a professor of government at Harvard’s Kennedy School and co-author with NYU Wagner Innovation Labs Director Neil Kleiman of “A New City O/S: The Power of Open, Collaborative, and Distributed Governance,” is the former Mayor of Indianapolis and was deputy mayor for operations under Mayor Mike Bloomberg.