A data ethics board can be a powerful governance tool for an organisation as it advises and shapes individual projects and policies based on ethical principles.
This kind of board is usually advisory (i.e. it provides non-binding recommendations) but, in some cases, it may be given institutional power to halt particularly harmful projects.
Three important features of a data ethics board are independence (the board’s recommendations should not be influenced by the organisation), expertise (the board should contain ethics experts from different backgrounds from both within and outside the organisation) and transparency (the board should publish the names of its members and minutes from meetings).
For data ethics boards in local government, LOTI recommends the following:
Function: The borough should take project proposals, post-impact assessments and corporate policy proposals to the board periodically. The board should be able to review and make proposals on a project during the meeting in which they are first shared. Follow-ups to the board’s advice should be acted upon by the managers of the project and reported back to the board via the borough officer who acts as secretariat to the board.
Independence: The board should be able to give independent advice to the borough and not be influenced by representatives of the borough who do not sit on the board.
Membership: The board should have sufficient external representation and ideally include experts in information governance and data law from industry, academia and legal professions. It should also include civil society representation (e.g. from local community organisations). The board might also want to include internal representation from departments outside of the digital, data or IT directorate (e.g. from the legal team). LOTI recommends prioritising demographic diversity when creating the board as a diverse set of experiences is a better foundation for realising risks, particularly to minority groups.
Transparency: The borough should publish information online about the board’s function, composition and minutes of its meetings, including any recommendations that it makes.
LOTI recognises that not every borough has enough projects to necessitate a data ethics board and acknowledges that, if every public sector organisation or company had their own ethics board, there would not be enough experts to go around! It therefore proposes creating a pan-London Advisory Ethics Board as an alternative or supplementary resource for boroughs. This pan-London board could also support collaborative, multi-borough data projects.
With the help of LOTI, Brent Council created a data ethics board in 2021.
The Essex Centre for Data Analytics (ECDA), a collaboration of public sector organisations in Essex, also have a data ethics board.