Introducing the Digital Ethics People’s Panel
Anna Grant, Senior Policy and Development Officer in the Digital Futures Team at Carnegie UK Trust tells us about the work she is doing with Scottish Government’s Digital Directorate, Involve and 30 Scottish citizens to explore how Scotland can develop as an ethical digital nation and what this means to the people of Scotland.
In 2019, the Scottish Government confirmed its ambition to develop as an ethical digital nation, but what does this actually mean, and specifically what does this mean to the people of Scotland?
What is the People’s Panel?
Thirty citizens from across Scotland have come together to form the Digital Ethics People’s Panel. To aid the delivery of this work we have engaged Involve, the UK’s leading public participation charity, to facilitate the panel using their many years of expertise in participatory approaches and deliberative democracy.
Originally the panels were going to run in person over four full weekends in Dundee over the course of 2020. However, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic this approach had to be paused and fundamentally rethought. While a number of alternative options were explored in spring 2020, the only realistic route to deliver the project, given the ongoing uncertain context, was to run the panel virtually. But undertaking a panel about digital ethics in a digital-only environment posed some fundamental challenges in terms of ensuring participation.
Participants were recruited through a random postal mailing and could sign up both online and via the telephone with one of the criteria used to select the panel was to ensure there was a mix of digital skill levels. Devices and dongles providing an internet connection were also offered during the recruitment phase and supplied to those without, and the team at Involve dedicated significant time to ensuring participants felt confident to take part.
Given the small size of the panel it is of course limited in how representative the views can be, but we envision this project as a first step and hope the process of citizen engagement continues to be built upon.
In addition to the People’s Panel, the National Digital Ethics Expert Group was established, to which the people’s panel will feed in their deliberations and conclusions, and who will ultimately go on to provide recommendations to the Scottish Government.
The panel will come together online across six weekly blocks to learn together, debate and discuss what it means to be an ethical digital nation.
Why is Citizen Engagement Important?
Citizen engagement is focused on the meaningful inclusion of people who are not already ‘in’ an organisation developing or delivering the services. It means recognising the experiences and skills of recipients of services, local or national communities more generally.
Fundamentally, a process of citizen engagement can support decision makers to better understand public attitudes, behaviours, opportunities and challenges with regards to a particular topic. The space also allows the participants to explore different aspects of the subject, weigh up different options or opinions and make more informed decisions. As a result, the process will provide more detailed insights and richer data than a standard survey, interview set or focus groups could.
The Scottish Government has committed to increasing citizen participation and engagement in various aspects of service development.
Focused citizen engagement would support the public to engage with the many complex, technical and often competing issues associated with trying to understand what it means to be an ethical digital nation, in a thoughtful and balanced way.
What topics have we already covered?
So far the group has engaged on topics ranging from understanding what is digital to big data, privacy, online harms like misinformation and disinformation, and the digital economy digging into topics including automation and responsibility of different actors and institutions.
The panel has heard from speakers from the public sector, academia, third sector and industry. Alongside these experts they have also engaged with different types of evidence including survey data and more detailed case studies.
They have produced content through straight forward discussions, polling, trade off and responsibility mapping among the many activities.
Over the coming months we hope to share reflections on the content of the discussions from the People’s Panel and initial insights gleaned before publication of the final report later this year. The panel will run until the summer with the final block focused on producing conclusions for the Expert Group.
Our upcoming sessions will include exploration of concepts around digital inclusion, the opportunity and threats of digital technology on democratic and civic participation, and considerations around the environment.
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