The promises and threats of big data for public policy-making

The environment in which public policy is made has entered a period of dramatic change. Widespread use of digital technologies, the Internet and social media means both citizens and governments leave digital traces that can be harvested to generate big data. Policy-making takes place in an increasingly rich data environment, which poses both promises and threats to policy-makers.

On the promise side, such data offers a chance for policy-making and implementation to be more citizen-focused, taking account of citizens’ needs, preferences and actual experience of public services, as recorded on social media platforms. As citizens express policy opinions on social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook; rate or rank services or agencies on government applications such as NHS Choices; or enter discussions on the burgeoning range of social enterprise and NGO sites, such as Mumsnet, 38 degrees and, they generate a whole range of data that government agencies might harvest to good use. Policy-makers also have access to a huge range of data on citizens’ actual behaviour, as recorded digitally whenever citizens interact with government administration or undertake some act of civic engagement, such as signing a petition.

Data mined from social media or administrative operations in this way also provide a range of new data which can enable government agencies to monitor—and improve—their own performance, for example through log usage data of their own electronic presence or transactions recorded on internal information systems, which are increasingly interlinked. And they can use data from social media for self-improvement, by understanding what people are saying about government, and which policies, services or providers are attracting negative opinions and complaints, enabling identification of a failing school, hospital or contractor, for example. They can solicit such data via their own sites, or those of social enterprises. And they can find out what people are concerned about or looking for, from the Google Search API or Google trends, which record the search patterns of a huge proportion of internet users.

As for threats, big data is technologically challenging for government, particularly those governments which have always struggled with large-scale information systems and technology projects. The UK government has long been a world leader in this regard and recent events have only consolidated its reputation. Governments have long suffered from information technology skill shortages and the complex skill sets required for big data analytics pose a particularly acute challenge. Even in the corporate sector, over a third of respondents to a recent survey of business technology professionals cited ‘Big data expertise is scarce and expensive’ as their primary concern about using big data software.

And there are particular cultural barriers to government in using social media, with the informal style and blurring of organisational and public-private boundaries which they engender. And gathering data from social media presents legal challenges, as companies like Facebook place barriers to the crawling and scraping of their sites.

More importantly, big data presents new moral and ethical dilemmas to policy makers. For example, it is possible to carry out probabilistic policy-making, where policy is made on the basis of what a small segment of individuals will probably do, rather than what they have done. Predictive policing has had some success particularly in California, where robberies declined by a quarter after use of the ‘PredPol’ policing software, but can lead to a “feedback loop of injustice” as one privacy advocacy group put it, as policing resources are targeted at increasingly small socio-economic groups. What responsibility does the state have to devote disproportionately more—or less—resources to the education of those school pupils who are, probabilistically, almost certain to drop out of secondary education? Such challenges are greater for governments than corporations. We (reasonably) happily trade privacy to allow Tesco and Facebook to use our data on the basis it will improve their products, but if government tries to use social media to understand citizens and improve its own performance, will it be accused of spying on its citizenry in order to quash potential resistance.

And of course there is an image problem for government in this field—discussion of big data and government puts the word ‘big’ dangerously close to the word ‘government’ and that is an unpopular combination. Policy-makers’ responses to Snowden’s revelations of the US Tempora and UK Prism programmes have done nothing to improve this image, with their focus on the use of big data to track down individuals and groups involved in acts of terrorism and criminality—rather than on anything to make policy-making better, or to use the wealth of information that these programmes collect for the public good.

However, policy-makers have no choice but to tackle some of these challenges. Big data has been the hottest trend in the corporate world for some years now, and commentators from IBM to the New Yorker are starting to talk about the big data ‘backlash’. Government has been far slower to recognise the advantages for policy-making and services. But in some policy sectors, big data poses very fundamental questions which call for an answer; how should governments conduct a census, for or produce labour statistics, for example, in the age of big data? Policy-makers will need to move fast to beat the backlash.

This post is based on discussions at the workshop on Responsible Research Agendas for Public Policy in the era of Big Data workshop.

Helen Margetts is the Director of the OII, and Professor of Society and the Internet. She is a political scientist specialising in digital era governance and politics.

Experiments are the most exciting thing on the UK public policy horizon

What makes people join political actions? Iraq War protesters crowd Trafalgar Square in February 2007. Image by DavidMartynHunt.

Experiments—or more technically, Randomised Control Trials—are the most exciting thing on the UK public policy horizon. In 2010, the incoming Coalition Government set up the Behavioural Insights Team in the Cabinet Office to find innovative and cost effective (cheap) ways to change people’s behaviour. Since then the team have run a number of exciting experiments with remarkable success, particularly in terms of encouraging organ donation and timely payment of taxes. With Bad Science author Ben Goldacre, they have now published a Guide to RCTs, and plenty more experiments are planned.

This sudden enthusiasm for experiments in the UK government is very exciting. The Behavioural Insights Team is the first of its kind in the world—in the US, there are few experiments at federal level, although there have been a few well publicised ones at local level—and the UK government has always been rather scared of the concept before, there being a number of cultural barriers to the very word ‘experiment’ in British government. Experiments came to the fore in the previous Administration’s Mindscape document. But what made them popular for Public Policy may well have been the 2008 book Nudge by Thaler and Sunstein, which shows that by knowing how people think, it is possible to design choice environments that make it “easier for people to choose what is best for themselves, their families, and their society.” Since then, the political scientist Peter John has published ‘Nudge, Nudge, Think, Think, which has received positive coverage in The Economist: The use of behavioural economics in public policy shows promise and the Financial Times: Nudge, nudge. Think, think. Say no more …; and has been reviewed by the LSE Review of Books: Nudge, Nudge, Think, Think: experimenting with ways to change civic behaviour.

But there is one thing missing here. Very few of these experiments use manipulation of information environments on the internet as a way to change people’s behaviour. The Internet seems to hold enormous promise for ‘Nudging’ by redesigning ‘choice environments’, yet Thaler and Sunstein’s book hardly mentions it, and none of the BIT’s experiments so far have used the Internet; although a new experiment looking at ways of encouraging court attendees to pay fines is based on text messages.

So, at the Oxford Internet Institute we are doing something about that. At OxLab, an experimental laboratory for the social sciences run by the OII and Said Business School, we are running online experiments to test the impact of various online platforms on people’s behaviour. So, for example, two reports for the UK National Audit Office: Government on the Internet (2007) and Communicating with Customers (2009) carried out by a joint OII-LSE team used experiments to see how people search for and find government-internet related information. Further experiments investigated the impact of various types of social influence, particularly social information about the behaviour of others and visibility (as opposed to anonymity), on the propensity of people to participate politically.

And the OII-edited journal Policy and Internet has been a good venue for experimentalists to publicise their work. So, Stephan Grimmelikhuijsen’s paper Transparency of Public Decision-Making: Towards Trust in Local Government? (Policy & Internet 2010; 2:1) reports an experiment to see if transparency (relating to decision-making by local government) actually leads to higher levels of trust. Interestingly, his results indicated that participants exposed to more information (in this case, full council minutes) were significantly more negative regarding the perceived competence of the council compared to those who did not access all the available information. Additionally, participants who received restricted information about the minutes thought the council was less honest compared to those who did not read them.