Enriching digital technology with values
The use of new technology has an impact on ethical and constitutional values. Interdisciplinary collaboration between researchers from different disciplines and policymakers during the design phase can prevent the undesirable violation of these values. Jurgen Goossens from Tilburg University is investigating how the government can design blockchain applications in a transparent and legitimate manner so that citizens can trust the government. How does one design their digital technology in such a way that public values are safeguarded when the technology is used? That is the key question within the NWO-MVI programme “Responsible Innovation. Designing for public values in a digital world”, in which Goossens’ project was awarded funding.
‘Digital technologies such as artificial intelligence and blockchain play an increasingly important role in shaping society. Take the coronavirus crisis, for example. We immediately looked to digital solutions for working from home and are thinking of using apps to limit the spread of the disease. But how do we ensure that public values such as privacy are properly safeguarded in this new type of technology?’ The programme “Responsible innovation. Designing for public values in a digital world” revolves about this topical question, says Jeroen van den Hoven, member of the NWO-MVI board and one of the founding members of the programme. ‘Various government ministries are currently thinking about the digital society. There are urgent questions about finding the right balance between supporting and violating the various values that are affected by the use of new technology. Examples are artificial intelligence in weapon systems and the use of digital solutions for governing society. This research programme was therefore established to tackle such concrete policy issues.’
Bridging the gap between knowledge and policy
‘The aim of this programme is to provide knowledge for policy’, confirms Marnix Croes, who represents the Ministry of Justice and Security in the programme council. ‘And that is far easier said than done. Researchers have an interest, perspective and jargon, and mainly write their scientific articles for their colleagues. Subsequently, policymakers examine such research from their own interests and perspective. If they manage to find a way through the jargon, then they have to translate the findings to their discipline and integrate those with the findings of numerous other researchers. That is far from easy. Ensuring that acquired scientific knowledge matches the experiential world of policymakers requires far more than the production of explanatory infographics. Policymakers are primarily concerned about how to realise the objectives established by politicians in society. At the Ministry of Justice and Security, we mainly focus on realising behavioural changes in society. That society is then viewed as a panel with dials that can be turned to realise behavioural changes. But which dials are necessary? What happens when a dial is turned? And how do we prevent unwanted side effects? Researchers need to realise that policymakers view their work in this way.’
Broad valorisation panel
The valorisation panels play an important task in this regard. In the project “Blockchain in the network society: in search of transparency, trust and legitimacy” of project leader Jurgen Goossens, a broad spectrum of stakeholders is involved from knowledge institutions, government and the private sector. These range from two ministries, the Municipality of The Hague, the Association of Netherlands Municipalities and the Central Judicial Collection Agency (CJIB), to the Dutch Blockchain Coalition, ECP | Platform voor de InformatieSamenleving, CMS Derks Star Busmann NV and blockchain company Ledger Leopard BV. That was a deliberate choice, says the associate professor of constitutional and administrative law: ‘We focus on blockchain, a technology that makes distributed working in a network possible without the necessary essential role of trusted intermediaries. In addition, blockchain applications make use of smart contracts. These are “if x, then y” algorithms that make an automatic realisation of rules and transactions possible. Furthermore, we examine three public values from the perspective of the citizen: transparency, which should help towards building up the trust that is ultimately needed to realise the legitimacy of government actions. By combining a thorough scientific foundation with an interdisciplinary research team as well as participation from the relevant stakeholders in everyday practice, we can reach conclusions that can broadly help the government in how it deals with digital technology.’
Concrete blockchain implementations
In the project, two concrete cases take centre stage in which the government is considering the use of blockchain to provide a service to the citizen. The first case concerns the use of blockchain for the awarding of subsidies. Smart contracts check whether the applicant satisfies the conditions set and, if they do, automatically award the subsidy. Goossens: ‘A possible use is making it easier to obtain a subsidy from the municipality when purchasing an electric bicycle from a local retailer. Subsidy dossiers often cause a considerable administrative burden. However, with the evidence that you satisfy the conditions, for example that you are a resident, that you have purchased an electric bicycle and that the retailer is located in the municipality, you could easily automate the process with smart contracts based on blockchain. As a result of this, neither applicant nor government bodies can commit fraudulent acts, and human errors made by the applicant and the government body are avoided.’
The second pilot concerns the digital data safe of the Central Judicial Collection Agency. Its job is to collect fines. However, sometimes people cannot pay because they have debts elsewhere. In that case, the CJIB can provide help by arranging a payment plan, for example. However, due to privacy legislation, the CJIB now often does not know whether people have other debts. And sometimes, people do not dare to or are not willing to share such sensitive information. With the help of blockchain and so-called zero-knowledge-proofs, the CJIB can be informed “that there are other debts”, but not how much nor with whom, and only if the citizen allows for that. That last aspect refers to the use of the so-called self-sovereign identity, in which people have control over their data and the access to it.
The researchers will itemise which responsibilities the government bears during the implementation of this type of technology. They will also investigate how citizens experience applications. Do they trust them? How transparent and user-friendly is the system for them? ‘The framework for the relationship between administrative bodies and individual citizens can be found in the General Administrative Law Act. However, this has not been amended to cover important digital developments. Therefore, in practice, it is not clear how we should satisfy the basic principles of good governance with this type of technology, for example the principle of due diligence and the obligation to state reasons.’
Goossens gives another example: ‘If the citizen receives a decision from the government then they must be able to appeal against this. They must be able to discuss the matter, after which the government must effectively reconsider the decision. But how can such an appeal procedure take place if the decision is taken automatically by a blockchain application? Such a procedure is not satisfied by simply running the citizen’s application through the software again. Perhaps our research will reveal that during an appeals procedure, the citizen needs and has the right to a human intermediary.’
‘The Netherlands is in a good position to consider questions like this’, states Van den Hoven. ‘The essence of responsible innovation is that in a design, public values such as trust and legitimacy are included in the package of requirements at the earliest possible stage. This research programme is extremely relevant. For example, in the current coronavirus crisis, how will we realise the unlocking of the intelligent lockdown whilst retaining privacy and rights to freedom, and how we will weigh up the importance of public health against other fundamental, principal and economic values? Many people are talking and thinking about this. Within the MVI programme, we are bringing together the best researchers to work on this based on the most recent and relevant scientific research.’
This article was published as part of the NWO-MVI Platform newsletter. Want to read more? Subscribe to our digital newsletter!