The National Digital Ethics Public Panel brought together a broadly representative group of 30 people from across Scotland to learn, discuss and deliberate on key aspects of digital ethics. The focus was to explore how Scotland could mitigate against the potential risks and harms that the growing use and reliance on digital technologies poses to individuals, and to society more broadly, while maximising the benefits and opportunities.
The 2019 -20 Programme for Government included a commitment to explore the ambition of Scotland becoming an ethical digital nation:
“In the coming year, we will develop principles and frameworks setting out how we will become an ethical digital nation. These will be clear statements of how Scotland will use digital, data and artificial intelligence to improve public services, boost productivity and drive inclusive growth in ways which protect privacy, enhance security and promote accessibility, inclusion and diversity.”
A National Digital Ethics Expert Group was established to gather evidence and develop recommendations for a framework of digital ethics for Scotland. Alongside this we convened the National Digital Ethics Public Panel to support the Expert Group through a parallel process where public views, preferences, and priorities on the topics they were considering could be explored in a deliberative way.
The National Digital Ethics Public Panel met online for six blocks of meetings between September 2020 and June 2021. Each block involved Panel Members coming together for 8 hours during the space of 1 week (2 hours each on a Tuesday and Thursday evening and two 2-hour sessions on the Saturday).
The Sortition Foundation worked with us to undertake a stratified selection of the members, designed to best match the latest Scottish data on six dimensions: age, parliamentary region, gender, education level, urban / rural classification, and level of digital literacy. Given the topic area ensuring the membership accoutned for self-declared digital literacy was particualrly important, and during the on-boarding process selected members who did not have access to suitable equipment and/or low levels of digital literacy were given further individual support to ensure they could participate.
The topic of Digital Ethics is a vast and complex one, and there was no expectation that the Panel Members would become technical, ethical or policy ‘experts’ throughout the process. Instead, their role was to undertake a process of cumulative learning which would enable them to reflect on questions, and draw conclusions in an informed and considered way, to complement the work of the Expert Group. Each block therefore focussed on an overarching question, with examples presented from across a wide range of uses of algorithms, automation and digital monitoring technologies to illustrate the issues and help ground the discussions:
- What is digital and what is digital ethics? - to increase Members’ understanding of where, how, and why digital data is collected about individuals – 'their digital footprint' – and explore opinions on different ways this data is used in the public and private sectors.
- In an ethical digital Scotland how should we protect against digital risks & harms at individual and societal levels (and what are the constraints)? - including considering where the balance of responsibility should lie between individuals, government/regulation, and businesses for preventing and mitigating harms.
- How do we strike a fair balance between the economic and social benefits from digital innovations, while also preventing negative effects? - to consider what a digitally thriving, ethical 21st century Scottish economy would look like.
- Can Digital Technologies help to reduce inequalities for individuals and provide opportunities for society to become more inclusive? - to explore the impacts of digital inclusion and digital exclusion for a digitally ethical Scotland.
- Can the ever-increasing use of digital tech in Scotland be balanced with environmental responsibility? - to evaluate where responsibility for minimising negative environmental impacts lies, and whether it is ‘fair’ to call for individual behaviour change to reduce emissions from personal use.
- In an ethical digital Scotland, how far should public and private sector bodies be allowed to go in the use of digital technologies and surveillance to make decisions and direct services? - including examining questions of fairness and justice in the use of big data for service planning, delivery, and determining access and eligibility.
In their final meetings Members were given space to ‘step back’ and reflect on all the things they had learnt and considered, alongside their own values and concerns for the future, to identify what they believed to be the big, unresolved challenges and tensions in the drive for Scotland to be both more digital, but also ethically digital. They were also invited to ‘imagine ahead’ and identify what they would expect to be in place to mitigate the risks and maximise the benefits of digital growth in Scotland.
Central to sustaining Members’ engagement in a long deliberative process like this, particualrly when delivered online, is the variety of exercises and techniques used throughout the sessions. In this case considerable care was given to designing a process that would support all participants to use Zoom (and a limited number of other platforms) to engage with quite complex information in a way that enabled them to put their opinion forward on their own terms. Each block was therefore designed to include a range of ways for Members to participate including:
- facilitated breakout discussions;
- collaborative question and idea generation sessions using Jamboard;
- plenary discussions;
- group ranking/negotiation activities in breakout rooms;
- time for individual reflection and note taking;
- opportunities to question the speakers (in breakout rooms and in plenary);
- live interactive polling to instantly gauge the sentiment within the ‘room’ on key discussion points;
- online worksheets after each block to collect quantitative and qualitative data from each Member.
Building this variety into the process design ensured that all participants were able to contribute in ways that suited them best – verbally during breakout discussions, through written inputs on Jamboard and in post-event worksheets, and through time for reflection between meetings.
Consideration was also given to the importance of the members hearing a range of views and from a range of different types of speakers. While the Chair of the Expert Group Dr Claudis Pagliari (Senior lecturer and researcher, Usher Institute, University of Edinburgh) operated as a voice of continuity for Members across the Panel meetings, helping to locate the other invited presenters within their wider discussions, the Members heard from 20 different speakers in total including representatives from local and national government, the third sector, the private sector, academia, and trade bodies.
An Insight Report drawing upon the entire process was presented to the National Digital Ethics Expert Group in September 2021. The Expert Group is due to report their findings and recommendations to the Scottish Government in Summer 2022, and the conclusions formed by the Public Panel are helping to inform this report and will be integrated within it. When this report is published the Insight Report will also be published as a standalone report on this public engagement process.