A PLAYBOOK FOR ETHICAL TECHNOLOGY GOVERNANCE: Helping governments anticipate and prepare for unintended consequences of new technology
The daily disinformation campaigns and oppression of algorithmic bias make combining “Ethics” and “Technology” sound like an oxymoron...
July 21, 2021 by By Jake Dunagan, Ph.D. and Ilana Lipsett
The Ethical OS has been used by many organizations and agencies across the civic sector to answer some of these questions. IFTF has used EthicalOS with entities such as the California state legislature, the United States Conference of Mayors, and other local governments, to bring more foresight and long-term thinking to policy decisions about new technologies. In response to high demand, the IFTF Governance Futures Lab created a new playbook designed specifically for government leaders . Adapted from the original Ethical OS, the Playbook for Ethical Tech Governance, created with support from the Tingari-Silverton Foundation, was released in the Spring of 2021. It equips civil servants with the skills and tools to proactively resolve ethical dilemmas emerging from new technologies and new social and political dynamics. This playbook provides a framework through which to assess and evaluate ethical dilemmas, to bring conversations about values and ethics into your decision-making architecture, to anticipate and mitigate unintended consequences of your decisions, and to act to maximize positive outcomes for the most people possible.
What’s in the Playbook
Through research and interviews with government leaders, we identified 5 “Risk Zones,” or urgent topics that governments and technologists alike will need to address swiftly and thoughtfully in the coming decade. These risk zones are: Artificial Intelligence, Climate, Equity, Law Enforcement, and Public Health.
Within each risk zone, we present two scenarios — one from the present, or near-term, and another with a 10-year horizon. These scenarios contain inherent dilemmas that challenge implicit ethical codes. For example, in one of our scenarios we look at how AI might be used to dictate when people can or cannot use their cars to commute to work. It reduces traffic for all, but requires occasional sacrifices for individuals. These scenarios are intended to spark conversation about how technology might impact — or be impacted by — the decisions about technology implementations by civic officials.
In order to facilitate a decision-making process that evaluates consequences of these decisions, we adapted the classic Futures Wheel to help guide users through possible best and worst case outcomes of their choices. We follow each section with a series of questions for consideration to help deepen the conversation about the issues raised in the scenario, as well as the broader applicability of the trade-offs contained with each decision.
The Decision Tree
Understanding intended and unintended consequences of events and action is a critical component of foresight. The Futures Wheel (also a tool in the IFTF Foresight Essential training called Draw Out Consequences) is a staple of foresight workshops and facilitated processes. It asks users to brainstorm first, second, third, and tertiary consequences, and make connections between them. We originally included a Futures Wheel component into the playbook, but as we playtested it with experts and peers, it became clear that the written tool needed active facilitation or extensive explanation to be useful.
Since the playbook needs to be a stand-alone self-facilitated process, we decided to simplify the Futures Wheel into a bifurcating tree, representing positive and negative outcomes of an ethical policy choice. For the negative outcome branch of the tree, we asked what could be done to address the outcome, and what might have been done differently to avoid negative impacts. For the positive outcome, we looked at second order positive and negative outcomes, and asked what could be done to address negative outcomes at that stage. Finally, we asked users to evaluate their policy choices and overall outcomes against their core civil service values.
Through this process, we looked at multiple consequences, constrained possibilities to two outcomes at each stage, and forced users to think about outcomes as generally positive or negative. Of course, the limitations we enforce on the process hide the complexities and nuance of the impact of any policy choice. And, the interpretation of “positive” and “negative” can differ among people and constituencies. But we believe the trade-off of some of these complexities ultimately benefits the process of thinking through multiple consequences, and is a useful on-ramp for further exploration.
Use the playbook to guide conversations and difficult decisions
Addressing a rapidly changing technological landscape with governing institutions born in a slower, less complex world is a challenge. Effective, ethical technology governance requires balancing the needs of individuals, groups, and larger systems in such a way that winning in the short-term does not destroy opportunity in the long-term. Policymakers need a framework through which to assess and evaluate ethical dilemmas, anticipate and mitigate unintended consequences, and act to maximize positive outcomes that point towards preferred futures.
Our hope is that this playbook is an easy-to-use guide to help navigate these complex situations. As governing institutions and leaders try to keep pace with technological advances, long-term consequence-oriented thinking can help balance the need and speed of innovation with what is necessary to safeguard privacy, truth, democracy, mental health, civic discourse, equality of opportunity, economic stability, or public safety. It can help ensure trust, accountability, and fairness in the process.
Interested in learning more about the Playbook?
The playbook is free for download and has been designed to work as a stand-alone tool in workshops, meetings, and/or community engagement settings. We have also developed a series of hands-on workshops that our expert IFTF facilitators can provide to your team, agency, or department. Please contact John Clamme at [email protected] to inquire about these offerings.
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IFTF Foresight Essentials
Institute for the Future (IFTF) is the world’s leading futures organization. Its training program, IFTF Foresight Essentials, is a comprehensive portfolio of strategic foresight training tools based upon 50 years of IFTF methodologies. IFTF Foresight Essentials cultivates a foresight mindset and skillset that enable individuals and organizations to foresee future forces, identify emerging imperatives, and develop world-ready strategies. To learn more about how IFTF Foresight Essentials is uniquely customizable for businesses, government agencies, and social impact organizations, visit iftf.org/foresightessentials or subscribe to the IFTF Foresight Essentials newsletter.