The beauty of the back
The source code of the Dutch government will be open as much as possible from next year. The minister of Home Affairs writes this in the budget plans for 2021. Government departments who want to share the source code of their digital services and want to work in the open, can count on the support of the minister.
Great! That fits in perfectly with a digital government that works in an open, fair and inclusive manner. If you know me, you know that is my favourite kind of digital government. (Earlier this year I wrote nine essays on why we need an open, fair and inclusive digital government.)
But… since I read the minister’s letter in September I have hesitated to cheer too much. It sounds so easy to open the door and ‘to go open source’, but it’s not. It is in fact not just a technical publication. Open source is also about the culture of the organization. It means you show another side of the government: the back.
In this article I want to share some thoughts on what happens when you make the back of the government open. What are boundaries and how should we deal with them?
In the Netherlands we have the Rijks ICT Dashboard where you can see every planned IT-project with a budget over 5 million euros. I like to sniff through it regularly. A lot of these projects overlap each other. And when you think about it, it’s obvious. A lot of government services look alike. To apply for something digitally, for example. And to follow the status of this digital application, like you can do with something you ordered online. Or an application to make a financial decision and then pay it out to the citizen.
It’s not rocket science what we do in government, is it? However, every government organisation makes their own rockets, so it seems. Every organisation makes or buys their own applications. There are not many applications that are shared openly so others can use them as well. This is not only unnecessarily expensive but it also means that governmental services work a bit differently every place a citizen goes.
‘Make it open, it makes things better’, so say the poster of the Government Digital Service in the UK. Things get better when critical experts from the outside can think along. When things are open, it’s easier to contribute to the government, also by the business community. Openness fuels innovation because others can get on with the work and the ideas. And openness helps others to control the government. Critical parties in general, and journalists and members of parliament in particular. (And think about all the time we save on Mandatory Declassification Review requests (MDR) when everything is already open!)
But where is the limit of openness?
A code dump on Github doesn’t bring you very far. You need context. You want to understand how the government works. On a collective level for the reasons I mentioned above, but also on an individual level. You also want to understand how the government comes to a decision, that’s what all that code is all about, right?
The context of code
The government enforces laws. Laws by which citizens can or must do something. They have to pay or will receive something, such as permission or money. In the past decades governments have automated and digitized these actions as much as possible (or they are still working to do so).
In the past two years I have been photographing my colleagues at the Executive Agency of Education as ‘a compassionate civil servant’. I wanted to know how they, the makers of digital government, deal with their bias and what role the citizen plays in their work. When I photographed my colleague Cees-Jan, we discussed how ‘our computer’ comes to a decision. Cees-Jan talked about the catalog of decision rules that we have in our organization. Some might know this as business rules. Every law has been broken down into lines of text that can be used together to decide, for example on a student’s application for student finance.
“We can trace how such a decision was taken. The sum of a decision is the decision rules, based on the law + used in an implementation, for example a computer system or a work instruction + the personal data of the student concerned. For example: I (Maike) have a student debt (my data) and want to use a ‘wildcard year’ so I can postpone my payments (part of the law). I go online where I can request this with a form and receive immediate feedback from the system that it is arranged (application based on the decision rules).”
Fragment of my conversation with Cees-Jan in November 2019, here’s the entire interview.
Open to protect citizens
Marlies van Eck, assistant professor of AI & Law at Radboud University researched the legal protection of citizens in automated chain decisions. One of her conclusions is that it is not clear how the government has interpreted the law when the computer decides. She was unable to investigate whether this was done properly and what choices had been made when making such a computer decision. The legal protection of citizens is at stake, according to Marlies van Eck.
If we open up government source code, it’s about this, if you ask me. It is not just about the source code, that is actually just an elaboration of how we implement the law. The government must share openly how the law is translated into decision rules, which are then programmed. Open the decision rules. And help citizens see how decisions about them are being made on the basis of those decision rules combined with what the government knows about them: their data.
My own student debt
In 2015 I did research into repaying student debt. A group of ex-students could choose from several repayment schemes. I was one of those myself. I was allowed to choose between the repayment rules from before and after 2012. Because I worked at the EAE, I was able to find out which scheme worked best for my situation.
Together with Jasper, my husband, I calculated and simulated exactly how things would go in a number of different future scenarios. Okay, Jasper lost interest in this adventure after the first afternoon. But luckily I didn’t, and together with my colleagues I came up with a number of tools to help other ex-students do these kinds of calculations too.
Last year one of our interaction designers Evalien went a big step further. Every year in January many students call about the supplementary grant. Every year it is recalculated and you may receive a different amount as a result. Explaining that change is not that simple, as there are quite a few decision rules. Evalien turned the complex decision tree into a simple card collection that students can swipe through. Based on their card set, which they can customize, they see how the rules work out for them and what they can do next.
Open code > open process
Showing the back side of the government can therefore be very technical for society in general, so that others can reuse applications. And it can be very user-friendly so that citizens understand why a decision by the government works out for them in a certain way.
But we have to go one step further. We must share how all of this comes about.
Over the past two years, I have researched how we make choices at the EAE and how we contribute to a compassionate digital government. This resulted in a gallery of compassionate civil servants. I discovered that technology is not neutral and that it is important to reflect which bias we put into our digital services. If we work openly, we can.
This summer I did research for CoronaMelder, the Dutch covid-app that alerts you if you’ve been near someone with coronavirus. At CoronaMelder, code, architecture, design and research are openly shared on Github. With every version there is a changelog that explains what has changed and why. The process is also open. Every week we communicate in the Code for NL community where more than 1500 developers and designers think and help critically. I’m not saying it’s always easy. Sometimes you’ve worked very hard and very late, only to wake up in the morning with some very critical feedback for breakfast.
CoronaMelder was created by the Ministry of Health, together with the GGD, critical citizens and interest groups. The ministry had to be very open for this. Sharing everything and also explaining how things were decided. That openness is exciting (and yes, there are also journalists in the community). If everyone can see the back, that also means something for how you make that back side.
For example, I noticed that when I published my research on the GGD I went through all the documentation once more. Did I put it together correctly? Were all observations in it? Was my advice objective and well-founded? I never thought good documentation was really sexy, but it is a precondition for being able to work really openly, I have discovered. And because of it, community members continued with my research, came up with new research questions and even supplemented it with their own research. That was amazing to experience. And it is only possible if you work openly.
The back is beautiful
Marieke Opgelder, a friend of mine, creates beautiful works of art by embroidering everyday toys and kitchen appliances. I like her work best when you turn it over: the back of the embroidery is just like the back of the object to be embroidered. There is a beauty in attaching and securing thread which she does not hide, but rather uses and elevates to art. I love it. We should do this with the government too!
When I finished my research project on the compassionate civil servants, she gave me a framed Tinkerbell that I can display on both sides, whichever I feel like. Marieke and Tinkerbell remind me that the back can be just as beautiful as the front. But also that when both sides can be seen, they must also both be understood.
It requires a different embroidery technique.