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Algorithmic governance: Let's start with the Cabinet reshuffle

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

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A few months ago, Prime Minister Andrew Holness hinted publicly on Nationwide News Network during a conversation with Cliff Hughes that a Cabinet reshuffle was imminent. Clever Cliff tried to press for some specifics, but the astute and shrewd Holness would have none of it, as he gracefully hopped over the veteran broadcaster's open trap.

Many months have passed, and since then we have had two by-elections with another scheduled for March 5. Many might be wondering whether it isn't really time for some shaking up within the Cabinet, especially since one more member has been added to the Government benches after it successfully won the by-election in St Mary South Eastern.

The big question is not when the prime minister reshuffles the Cabinet, but what methodology and rationale will be used to assess the performance of the Cabinet, and what will be used for the reshuffling.

How will success or failure be measured with the absence of the highly anticipated job description for all ministers? It simply cannot be that Minister X is not performing in Y Ministry and he is shifted to Ministry Z. Neither can it be because Minister Q is not performing, but because he is a part of the inner circle he gets promoted to a limelight ministry.

There needs to be something more objective and methodological. Cabinet appointments should be based on merit, experience, knowledge, or an ability to run a particular portfolio efficiently and with integrity. I am recommending that the prime minister, with his technological savviness, use an algorithmic to reshuffle the Cabinet. Yes, I know, it has never been done in Jamaica, but it is a bold and innovative step.

I admire the prime minister for his open-mindedness and his ability to stimulate innovation. I am sure he will relish the idea of leading a Government with almost zero corruption. Algorithmic governance is a radical, digital reimagining of government centred on digital processes. It was the prime minister who said that he is from a different school, a different age, and a different way of thinking that does not always coincide with those that have traditional views. What I hear you to be saying Holness, is that you are willing to be unconventional in your approach to governance, and that is good.

I have always maintained the view that we need more exponential thinking in government, instead of the same old same linear thinking. I may not agree with you on the acting appointment of Chief Justice Bryan Sykes, but that's a matter for another time. However, I am fully on board with the idea of being unconventional and bold. Now back to the algorithms.

What are algorithms?

Have you ever wondered why when you log into your e-mail you notice there is a column on your right with some advertisements that perk your interest and which seem so unique to you? It may be books, shoes or gadgets or anything that you may consider buying or even looking at for a moment. I am a book addict; I like reading, so I order lots of books online. In fact, as I switch from writing this paragraph to open my e-mail, I noticed Amazon advertising some books in the right column of my e-mail. I was tempted to open the one with the title Barking up the Wrong Tree: The surprising science behind everything you know about success is (mostly) wrong. I must confess, I went back and opened it just to take a quick glance at the table of contents because the book looked like one I might want to read. All this happened because Yahoo and Amazon use algorithms to give me a series of tailor-made advertisements. It is like they know my interests because they know who I am, what I like, what I have been browsing, and what best fits me in a personalised way. Every time we pick up a mobile phone, make a purchase online, use a search engine or log on to the Web, we are interacting with algorithms.

An algorithm is a set of instructions and calculations used to analyse, manage, and improve many different types of processes. They have a very broad range of uses across the public services and the economy. We use algorithms as keys to unlock meaning from data. Algorithms underpin the technology that powers much of our everyday life and economy. Jamaica is behind in its use of this methodology in running the government and building the economy that satisfies the masses and not just the 20 per cent of those who handle the wealth of the nation.

It is no secret that the speed of growth in data is well known. It has been estimated that the total amount of data at our disposal will continue to grow exponentially. Most of this data is unstructured. It doesn't sit in neat rows in a database, but takes forms such as voice, text, tweets, e-mail, and video. New forms of technology are needed to handle these complex data that come directly from humans, managing complex ideas expressed in complex forms. The Government of Jamaica needs to be prepared for the challenges that algorithms will present for policy and regulation; in areas such as the privacy and rights of citizens, and the increasing complexity of the processes underpinning our economy.

Cabinet reshuffling using algorithm

But what does this have to do with the prime minister and his Cabinet? Before any reshuffling is done, each minister should be given an algorithmic assessment. Essentially, this is a tool used to assess and identify the interests, knowledge, capabilities, skills, style, etc, of each minister. Too often we have seen square pegs in round holes. I am recommending that the prime minister reshuffles his Cabinet using an algorithm — I call it political leadership by algorithm.

But how will this work? What will the Cabinet look like if the reshuffling was outsourced to a company that is competent in the use of algorithm? Cabinet members would go through a rigorous assessment process in which they are given a tool that gathers personal information — from likes, passions, interests, dreams, aspirations, personality, etc — and then the algorithm assesses the best fit. Let the data do the talking. It might find that Ruel Reid is not the best fit for the information portfolio, but someone like Olivia “Babsy” Grange or the rising Floyd Green. It may see that Robert Montague's best fit is not national security but transportation and mining. The data might find that Audley Shaw is the right man for the job and Mike Henry might be the right man for the Office of the Prime Minister because of his wit and his ability to keep a vision alive. Without any political interference, the outsourced algorithm could identify Dr Christopher Tufton for national security with a footnote that says, “forward-thinking, transformational leader” or “able to utilise evidence-based decision-making”. Is it possible that the algorithm could spring some surprises like Andrew Wheatley for minister of health and Daryl Vaz elevated to agriculture, industry and commerce? Let's try the algorithm, let's put it to the test to see whether it gets it right or we might agree that it is not the best tool for our political system.

The discussion around algorithmic governance is young, but it's exciting to see what the transformational effect would look like if this approach were to be used for political leadership development. This must be the future in selecting and preparing future leaders either as caretakers, board chairs, CEOs, permanent secretaries, and those that carry major leadership responsibility within the public service. Algorithms know no political boundaries, but the political capital is more likely to accrue to whichever side uses it. So, Mr Prime Minister, over to you. It is about time to reshuffle, the algorithmic way.

Henry J Lewis is a lecturer at the University of Technology, Jamaica, School of Humanities and Social Sciences. Send comments to the Observer or hjlewis@utech.edu.jm.

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