Public’s Right to Know Should Include Government Use of Algorithms

Connecticut Foundation for Open Government
News Release
For Immediate Release l March 12, 2018

Public’s Right to Know Should Include Government Use of Algorithms

The Connecticut Foundation for Open Government has released a policy paper calling for elected officials and the public to consider the connection between proprietary computer algorithms owned or used by government and the public’s right to know what its government is doing.

The paper, “Government Algorithms and the Public’s Right to Know,” has been published on the CFOG website.  Its release comes during the observance of National Sunshine Week, which highlights the importance of the public’s access to government decision-making.  Algorithms are a complex series of sequential instructions provided to a computer program to calculate an answer to a particular question or problem, often utilizing vast amounts of data.

“Governments use computer algorithms in making policy and other important decisions. Of course, if the algorithms themselves are based on flawed reasoning or processes, then government policies and decisions based on them will likewise be flawed,” the paper points out. :”Such errors can lead not only to unsound decisions, but they also can lead to an enormous waste of public resources and even to a significant loss of life.”

The paper, written by Mitchell Pearlman, former executive director of the state Freedom of Information Commission, provides context for considering “government honoring trade secrets and confidential commercial information on the one hand, and adhering to the fundamental principles of open and accountable government on the other.”

The policy paper was developed to increase awareness and understanding of an emerging issue with considerable ramifications for the public’s ability to access the basis for government actions, particularly as algorithms drive those decisions.

“Because computer algorithms are now – and increasingly will be – vital components in government policy and other decision making, it is essential to the continuance of our democratic system of governance that algorithmic transparency, to the greatest extent possible, should be enshrined both in public policy and in law,” the CFOG paper emphasizes.

Noting that computer algorithms are highly complex, routinely considered intellectual property or trade secrets, and often encrypted, the paper points out that the resulting difficulties in determining the reasons behind government decisions can be detrimental to the public interest.

“Governments use computer algorithms in making tax policy and budget decisions; they use them in forecasting various transportation and infrastructure needs; and they use them in analyzing public health and environmental issues and formulating policy based these analyses,” the paper explains.  It goes on to state that “government algorithms would need to be transparent so they can be publicly vetted before policy decisions are made or legislation becomes law.”

The paper notes that the New York City Council recently passed an algorithmic accountability bill which establishes a task force to review the use of algorithms by city agencies. In addition, an Allegheny County, PA agency discontinued the use of an algorithm after its owners refused to provide details about the algorithm that would assist the agency in determining problems with its use.

The CFOG paper concludes that “algorithmic transparency is essential to the continuance of our democratic system of governance.”  The paper was researched and developed for CFOG by Pearlman, who is a member of the CFOG Executive Committee.

CFOG is a broad-based, nonpartisan organization intent on preserving and protecting the people’s right to know in the conduct of the public’s business. The organization is dedicated to promoting the open and accountable government essential in a democratic society. It seeks to achieve this by educating policymakers and citizens in general on the need for a free flow of information on all public policy matters.

CFOG provides educational programs for state residents on open government issues and offers an instructional curriculum for high school students and other interested groups and organizations.  CFOG programs are open to the public, and the organization’s website,, provides news, resources and related information on the subject.

National Sunshine Week (March 11-17) is an initiative of the American Society of News Editors and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.