Teresa Scassa - Blog

Tuesday, 17 May 2022 07:04

Comments on the Third Review of Canada's Directive on Automated Decision-Making

Written by  Teresa Scassa
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Note: The following is my response to the call for submissions on the recommendations following the third review of Canada’s Directive on Automated Decision-Making. Comments are due by June 30, 2022. If you are interested in commenting, please consult the Review Report and the Summary of Key Issues and Proposed Amendments. Comments can be sent to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

 

The federal Directive on Automated Decision-Making (DADM) and its accompanying Algorithmic Impact Assessment tool (AIA) are designed to provide governance for the adoption and deployment of automated decision systems (ADS) by Canada’s federal government. Governments are increasingly looking to ADS in order to speed up routine decision-making processes and to achieve greater consistency in decision-making. At the same time, there are reasons to be cautious. Automated decision systems carry risks of incorporating and replicating discriminatory bias. They may also lack the transparency required of government decision-making, particularly where important rights or interests are at stake. The DADM, which has been in effect since April 2019 (with compliance mandatory no later than April 2020), sets out a series of obligations related to the design and deployment of automated decision-making systems. The extent of the obligations depends upon a risk assessment, and the AIA is the tool by which the level of risk of the system is assessed.

Given that this is a rapidly evolving area, the DADM provides that it will be reviewed every six months. It is now in its third review. The first two reviews led to the clarification of certain obligations in the DADM and to the development of guidelines to aid in its interpretation. This third review proposes a number of more substantive changes. This note comments on some of these changes and proposes an issue for future consideration.

Clarify and Broaden the Scope

A key recommendation in this third round of review relates to the scope of the DADM. Currently, the DADM applies only to ‘external’ services of government – in other words services offered to individuals or organizations by government. It does not apply internally. This is a significant gap when one considers the expanding use of ADS in the employment context. AI-enabled decision systems have been used in hiring processes, and they can be used to conduct performance reviews, and to make or assist in decision-making about promotions and internal workforce mobility. The use of AI tools in the employment context can have significant impacts on the lives and careers of employees. It seems a glaring oversight to not include such systems in the governance regime for ADM. The review team has recommended expanding the scope of the DADM to include internal as well as external services. They note that this move would also extend the DADM to any ADS used for “grants and contributions, awards and recognition, and security screening” (Report at 11). This is an important recommendation and one which should be implemented.

The review team also recommends a clarification of the language regarding the application of the DADM. Currently it puts within its scope “any system, tool, or statistical models used to recommend or make an administrative decision about a client”. Noting that “recommend” could be construed as including only those systems that recommend a specific outcome, as opposed to systems that process information on behalf of a decision-maker, the team proposes replacing “recommend” with “support”. This too is an important recommendation which should be implemented.

Periodic Reviews

Currently the DADM provides for its review every six months. This was always an ambitious review schedule. No doubt it was motivated by the fact that the DADM was a novel tool designed to address a rapidly emerging and evolving technology with potentially significant implications. The idea was to ensure that it was working properly and to promptly address any issues or problems. In this third review, however, the team recommends changing the review period from six months to two years. The rationale is that the six-month timetable makes it challenging for the team overseeing the DADM (which is constantly in a review cycle), and makes it difficult to properly engage stakeholders. They also cite the need for the DADM to “display a degree of stability and reliability, enabling federal institutions and the clients they serve to plan and act with a reasonable degree of confidence.” (Report at 12).

This too is a reasonable recommendation. While more frequent reviews were important in the early days of the DADM and the AIA, reviews every six months seem unduly burdensome once initial hiccups are resolved. A six-month review cycle engages the team responsible for the DADM in a constant cycle of review, which may not be the best use of resources. The proposed two-year review cycle would allow for a more experience to be garnered with the DADM and AIA, enabling a more substantive assessment of issues arising. Further, a two-year window is much more realistic if stakeholders are to be engaged in a meaningful way. Being asked to comment on reports and proposed changes every six months seems burdensome for anyone – including an already stretched civil society sector. The review document suggests that Canada’s Chief Information Officer could request completion of an off-cycle review if the need arose, leaving room for the possibility that a more urgent issue could be addressed outside of the two-year review cycle.

Data Model and Governance

The third review also proposes amendments to provide for what it describes as a more ‘holistic’ approach to data governance. Currently, the DADM focuses on data inputs – in other words on assessing the quality, relevance and timeliness of the data used in the model. The review report recommends the addition of an obligation to establish “measures to ensure that data used and generated by the Automated Decision System are traceable, protected, and appropriately retained and disposed of in accordance with the Directive on Service and Digital, Directive on Privacy Practices, and Directive on Security Management”. It will also recommend amendments to extend testing and assessment beyond data to underlying models, in order to assess both data and algorithms for bias or other problems. These are positive amendments which should be implemented.

Explanation

The review report notes that while the DADM requires “meaningful explanations” of how automated decisions were reached, and while guidelines provide some detail as to what is meant by explainability, there is still uncertainty about what explainability entails. The Report recommends adding language in Appendix C, in relation to impact assessment, that will set out the information necessary for ‘explainability’. This includes:

  • The role of the system in the decision-making process;
  • The training and client data, their source and method of collection, if applicable;
  • The criteria used to evaluate client data and the operations applied to process it; and
  • The output produced by the system and any relevant information needed to interpret it in the context of the administrative decision.

Again, this recommendation should be implemented.

Reasons for Automation

The review would also require those developing ADM systems for government to specifically identify why it was considered necessary or appropriate to automate the existing decision-making process. The Report refers to a “clear and demonstrable need”. This is an important additional criterion as it requires transparency as to the reasons for automation – and that these reasons go beyond the fact that vendor-demonstrated technologies look really cool. As the authors of the review note, requiring justification also helps to assess the parameters of the system adopted – particularly if the necessity and proportionality approach favoured by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada is adopted.

Transparency

The report addresses several issues that are relevant to the transparency dimensions of the DADM and the accompanying AIA. Transparency is an important element of the DADM, and it is key both to the legitimacy of the adoption of ADS by government, but also to its ongoing use. Without transparency in government decision-making that impacts individuals, organizations and communities, there can be no legitimacy. There are a number of transparency elements that are built into the DADM. For example, there are requirements to provide notice of automated decision systems, a right to an explanation of decisions that is tailored to the impact of the decision, and a requirement not just to conduct an AIA, but to publish the results. The review report includes a number of recommendations to improve transparency. These include a recommendation to clarify when an AIA must be completed and released, greater transparency around peer review results, more explicit criteria for explainability, and adding additional questions to the AIA. These are all welcome recommendations.

At least one of these recommendations may go some way to allaying my concerns with the system as it currently stands. The documents accompanying the report (slide 3 of summary document) indicate that there are over 300 AI projects across 80% of federal institutions. However, at the time of writing, only four AIAs were published on the open government portal. There is clearly a substantial lag between development of these systems and release of the AIAs. The recommendation that an AIA be not just completed but also released prior to the production of the system is therefore of great importance to ensuring transparency.

It may be that some of the discrepancy in the numbers is attributable to the fact that the DADM came into effect in 2020, and it was not grandfathered in for projects already underway. For transparency’s sake, I would also recommend that a public register of ADS be created that contains basic information about all government ADS. This could include their existence and function, as well as some transparency regarding explainability, the reasons for adoption, and measures taken to review, assess and ensure the reliability of these systems. Although it is too late, in the case of these systems, to perform a proactive AIA, there should be some form of reporting tool that can be used to provide important information, for transparency purposes, to the public.

Consideration for the Future

The next review of the DADM and the AIA should also involve a qualitative assessment of the AIAs that have been published to date. If the AIA is to be a primary tool not just for assessing ADS but for providing transparency about them, then they need to be good. Currently there is a requirement to conduct an AIA for a system within the scope of the DADM – but there is no explicit requirement for it to be of a certain quality. A quick review of the four AIAs currently available online shows some discrepancy between them in terms of the quality of the assessment. For example, the project description for one such system is an unhelpful 9-word sentence that does not make clear how AI is actually part of the project. This is in contrast to another that describes the project in a 14-line paragraph. These are clearly highly divergent in terms of the level of clarity and detail provided.

The first of these two AIAs also seems to contain contradictory answers to the AIA questionnaire. For example, the answer to the question “Will the system only be used to assist a decision-maker” is ‘yes’. Yet the answer to the question “Will the system be replacing a decision that would otherwise be made by a human” is also ‘yes’. Either one of these answers is incorrect, or the answers do not capture how the respondent interpreted these questions. These are just a few examples. It is easy to see how use of the AIA tool can range from engaged to pro forma.

The obligations imposed on departments with respect to ADS vary depending upon the risk assessment score. This score is evaluated through the questionnaire, and one of the questions asks “Are clients in this line of business particularly vulnerable?” In the AIA for an access to information (ATIP) tool, the answer given to this question is “no”. Of course, the description of the tool is so brief that it is hard to get a sense of how it functions. However, I would think that the clientele for an ATIP portal would be quite diverse. Some users will be relatively sophisticated (e.g., journalists or corporate users). Others will be inexperienced. For some of these, information sought may be highly important to them as they may be seeking access to government information to right a perceived wrong, to find out more about a situation that adversely impacts them, and so on. In my view, this assessment of the vulnerability of the clients is not necessarily accurate. Yet the answer provided contributes to a lower overall score and thus a lower level of accountability. My recommendation for the next round of reviews is to assess the overall effectiveness of the AIA tool in terms of the information and answers provided and in terms of their overall accuracy.

I note that the review report recommends adding questions to the AIA in order to improve the tool. Quite a number of these are free text answers, which require responses to be drafted by the party completing the AIA. Proposed questions include ones relating to the user needs to be addressed, how the system will meet those needs, and the effectiveness of the system in meeting those needs, along with reasons for this assessment. Proposed questions will also ask whether non-AI-enabled solutions were also considered, and if so, why AI was chosen as the preferred method. A further question asks what the consequences would be of not deploying the system. This additional information is important both to assessing the tool and to providing transparency. However, as noted above, the answers will need to be clear and sufficiently detailed in order to be of any use.

The AIA is crucial to assessing the level of obligation and to ensuring transparency. If AIAs are pro forma or excessively laconic, then the DADM can be as finely tuned as can be, but it will still not achieve desired results. The review committee’s recommendation that plain language summaries of peer review assessments also be published will provide a means of assessing the quality of the AIAs, and thus it is an important recommendation to strengthen both transparency and compliance.

A final issue that I would like to address is that, to achieve transparency, people will need to be able to easily find and access the information about the systems. Currently, AIAs are published on the Open Government website. There, they are listed alphabetically by title. This is not a huge problem right now, since there are only four of them. As more are published, it would be helpful to have a means of organizing them by department or agency, or by other criteria (including risk/impact score) to improve their findability and usability. Further, it will be important that any peer review summaries are linked to the appropriate AIAs. In addition to publication on the open government portal, links to these documents should be made available from department, agency or program websites. It would also be important to have an index or registry of AI in the federal sector – including not just those projects covered by the DADM, but also those in production prior to the DADM’s coming into force.

[Note: I have written about the DADM and the AIA from an administrative law perspective. My paper, which looks at the extent to which the DADM addresses administrative law concerns regarding procedural fairness, can be found here.]

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