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Effective and efficient when computers make official decisions but inadequate controls and follow-up

A Swedish National Audit Office audit shows that it is common for official decisions to be made by computers, called automated decision-making. In most cases, this leads to increased efficiency and legal certainty, but not always. Errors that arise can have major consequences for individuals and reduce confidence in public administration.

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Photo: Chim

Government agencies began to automate decision-making in the 1970s and the number of automated decisions is now very large. In 2019, 13 central government agencies made 121 million automated decisions in relation to private individuals and companies, according to the Swedish NAO’s audit.

The Swedish NAO has audited the effectiveness, efficiency and legal certainty of central government agencies’ automated decision-making. The audit included decisions on parental benefit at the Swedish Social Insurance Agency, annual income taxation of private individuals at the Swedish Tax Agency and driving licence learner’s permits at the Swedish Transport Agency.

The Swedish NAO’s conclusion is that the automation of these decision-making processes has led to reduced costs for the agencies and shorter waiting times for individuals. Legal certainty, in the form of increased equality and predictability, has also improved.

However, the Swedish NAO notes that there are deficiencies when it comes to ensuring that the automated decisions are correct.

“Our assessment is that the authorities have put too much focus on low costs and too little on control and follow-up,” says Auditor General Helena Lindberg.

This means that the agencies do not have an adequate framework to detect incorrect decisions, which can have major consequences for private individuals and businesses and risk reducing confidence in public administration.

“The problems are not due to new technology; these agencies have had automated decision-making since the 1980s and have established methods of managing such decision-making processes. Despite this, the controls and follow-up are inadequate," says Linda Talme, project leader for the audit.

The agencies audited need to follow up on the automated decisions to ensure that they are correct, and improve the work of handling cases with a high risk of fraud and errors.

Other important measures are to ensure that equivalent cases are treated equally and that the documentation of automated processing is clear and readable.

Recommendations in brief

The Government should instruct the Swedish Agency for Digital Government to create better conditions for effective and efficient, legally certain and correct automated decisions.

The Swedish Social Insurance Agency, the Swedish Tax Agency and the Swedish Transport Agency should follow up their automated decisions to ensure that they are correct.

The Social Insurance Agency, the Tax Agency and the Transport Agency also receive a number of separate recommendations.

See the report for full recommendations.

Facts: Automated decision-making in public administration

Automated decision-making is when an entire case process has been automated, so that decisions can be made by an IT system without a case officer being involved. However, decisions made in automated decision-making processes are not always automatic, but case officers both process and make decisions in some cases. Although the decisions are usually automated, no decisions are made using artificial intelligence (AI).

The audit shows that automated decisions are common and have existed since the 1970s. The 13 agencies that responded to the Swedish NAO’s survey made a total of 148 million decisions in relation to private individuals and companies in 2019. Of these, 137 million were included in automated decision-making processes, of which 121 million decisions were fully automated. Altogether, the 13 agencies have automated decision-making in 112 decision-making processes. The agencies audited by the Swedish NAO – the Swedish Social Insurance Agency, the Swedish Tax Agency and the Swedish Transport Agency – accounted for 80 per cent of the agencies’ automated decisions, in a total of 46 decision-making processes.

Press contact: Olle Castelius, phone: +46 8-5171 40 04.

Presskontakt: , telefon: 08-5171 42 06.

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Updated: 18 December 2020

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