Digitisation in the public sector
Recommendations for union action. A report by the Why Not Lab for the TUC
Written for the Trades Union Congress in the UK, this report presents recommendations for
union action as public services and work in said services become increasingly digitised.
Methodologically, the report is based on interviews with trade unions and workplace representatives conducted in late 2022 as well as desk top research. The report starts with an introduction to the current digitisation trajectory and the interviewees’ experiences. Three sections then follow, each listing recommendations for union action. The first is concerned with the level of national policy, the second with sectoral and workplace collective bargaining and the third with training needs and structures for union officers and workplace representatives.
Digitisation riddled with problems
Whilst most interviewees sympathise with the need to keep public services efficient, the transition to the new digital technologies is riddled with problems of a structural, organisational and political nature.
Structurally, the systems’ design process and agile rollout means that systems are taken into use before they are fully complete and checked for errors. As a result, citizens are harmed and their rights violated. For the workers, this is having detrimental effects on their rights and working conditions. Privacy rights in relation to third party access to sensitive data through the use of private sector developers and vendors is also a major concern, although not one explicitly mentioned by the interviewees.
Organisationally, the lack of transparency coupled with the top-down roll out, lack of meaningful consultation, and deficient co-design/co-governance efforts are violating workers’ dignity, rights, freedoms and autonomy.
Politically, the cost-saving aims of ‘improving’ public services are partially sought through the digitisation of public services, but also through negative pay policies, lay offs, office closures and more. In addition, the increasing reliance on private sector solutions and the lack of involvement of the workers and/or their unions in this process are posing a threat to workers’ rights and inclusive and diverse labour markets.
Policy and Collective Bargaining Recommendations
The report offers a number of concrete national policy recommendations that address some of the workplace realities as reported by the interviewees. These include:
The lack of transparency
The lack of meaningful consultation with workers with regards to the systems deployed and their effects on workers as well as functionality requests from the workers
The lack of sufficient training in how to use the systems
The lack of meaningful governance of the (un)intended effects of the systems on the workforce as well as the public, as well as the lack of structures to deal with these effects in an inclusive manner.
It then proceeds to offer concrete collective bargaining recommendations which mostly address issues that were indirectly raised by interviewees. What this means is that the interviewees described the consequences of the use of digital systems and some of the organisational, structural and political solutions that could overcome them.
However, they often did not go one step deeper into addressing the means of these affects, and/or what could be done to overcome exactly them. For example, this interviewee spoke about the need to repress the digital system due to its faults:
Sometimes we need to lie to the system otherwise we can’t get to the next stage. We call it “workarounds”. It is much improved compared to what it was. I used to train people on how to be a case manager. One of the most difficult things was to teach them how to use the system and the workarounds.
The means here relate to poor system design and poor system purpose definitions. They are probably also caused by poor communication between developers and deployers. If the workers were meaningfully consulted on the digital systems, and if their feedback was listened to and the system amended, the need for workarounds would have disappeared and not become what seems to be rather institutionalised. What this indicates is that there is a much stronger need for inclusive governance across the entire design and deployment life cycle.
The recommendations offered expand on the TUCs principles by adding:
Anti-commodification clause - that datasets that include workers’ personal data and/or personally identifiable information cannot be sold, given away or transferred to third parties without the explicit consent of the workers. Note: The Californian data protection regulation, the CPRA, includes an anticommodification clause as the only data protection regulation in the world. It states that workers (and consumers) have the right to opt-out of employers selling or sharing their data to third parties such as data brokers .
Governance clause - in line with the National Policy recommendation listed above, all digital technologies deployed at the workplace must be inclusively and periodically governed.
Responsibility clause - stipulating that management at all times is the responsible party and is liable for intended as well as unintended harms caused by the deployment of the digital technologies.
Explainability clause - that all systems deployed must be explainable by management.
They continue by recommending clauses that not only hold the public services in compliance with the UK GDPR, but also demand:
Data Protection and Rights
Management and workplace representatives’ digital competencies
The right to training/lifelong learning
Limitations to employers surveillance of workers, including outside of working hours via apps on private devices.
Union’s rights to organise remote or hybrid workers
The report concludes with recommendations for the competencies workplace reps and unions need to monitor the deployment and effects of digital technologies effectively.
These include foundational and advanced training modules that will help unions identify, map, access, understand and table collective bargaining demands.
Read the full report on the TUCs website here