UK government to test AI procurement guidelines

By on 30/09/2019 | Updated on 24/09/2020
The World Economic Forum has issued guidelines to help governments procure artificial intelligence from tech businesses such as Microsoft, founded by Bill Gates (pictured). Image courtesy: WEF

The UK will be the first government to test a new set of artificial intelligence (AI) procurement guidelines, which have been developed by global public-private cooperation body the World Economic Forum (WEF).   

AI Procurement Guidelines for Governments sets out the requirements civil servants should address before acquiring and deploying AI software and services; provides questions they should ask companies about their products, and how they use and process data; and makes recommendations for the implementation of AI.

According to WEF – which co-designed the guidelines as part of its Unlocking Public Sector AI project – civil servants often lack experience in acquiring emerging technologies, and many public institutions are cautious about harnessing AI at a time when “we are only beginning to understand the risks as well as the opportunities”.

It said growing public concerns around bias, privacy, accountability and transparency in the use of AI have added an extra layer of complexity to its roll-out at a national level, and that the guidelines have been designed to help civil servants keep up with the rapidly-developing technology and mitigate the associated risks.

The aim is to help governments make efficiencies through the responsible use of AI and prepare for future risks, while enabling established companies and start-ups to compete on a level playing field for government contracts.

Buying AI intelligently

The guidelines include using procurement processes that focus not on prescribing a specific solution, but on outlining problems and opportunities and allowing room for iteration; ensuring that legislation and codes of practice are incorporated in requests for proposals; and articulating the technical feasibility and governance considerations of obtaining relevant data.

They also outline the benefits of working in a diverse, multidisciplinary team, and suggest focusing on accountability, transparency, and maintaining regular communications with the AI provider.

WEF’s AI project lead Eddan Katz said AI holds the potential to “vastly improve” government operations and to benefit citizens in new ways – for example by improving traffic management, healthcare delivery and tax form processing.  

“These guidelines empower governments and international bodies to set the right policies, protocols, and assessment criteria that will facilitate effective, responsible and ethical public use of AI,” he said.

Early adopter

According to the UK’s minister for digital, Matt Warman, by taking a “dynamic approach” the government can “boost innovation, create competitive markets and support public trust in artificial intelligence”.

He said the new guidelines place the UK “at the forefront” of procuring AI and will help the public sector better serve citizens, easing the commissioning process on both sides and setting “a world standard in how governments work with artificial intelligence”.

“New uses of AI that are of interest to government will continue to emerge and will bring with them both benefits and risks,” Katz added. “It is important that governments prepare for this future now by investing in building responsible practices for how they procure AI.”

The guidelines were co-designed by WEF’s artificial intelligence and machine learning team along with the UK government’s Office of AI and private companies Deloitte, Salesforce and Splunk. Government and private sector procurement specialists and members of academia and civil society were consulted throughout the 10-month development process, which incorporated workshops and interviews.  

Over the next six months, it is hoped that governments around the world will test and pilot the new guidelines, with further iterations of the guidelines expected as the results are assessed.

Katz believes that once standards are set and widely adopted, “we could see new policies emerge to help navigate an uncertain ecosystem”.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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