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Digital ethics collection | Article

Ethical decision making

This page focuses on the basic framework and flow chart for making ethical decisions, and how individuals and organisations can apply ethical decision-making techniques and questions to the wider adoption and use of Digital, Data and Technology solutions and approaches.

Making ethical decisions

Making good ethical decisions requires a trained sensitivity to ethical issues and a practiced method for exploring the ethical aspects of a decision and weighing the considevrations that should impact our choice of a course of action. Having a method for ethical decision making is absolutely essential. The following framework developed by the Markkula Centre for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University provides help basic outline for exploring ethical dilemmas and identifying ethical courses of action as follows:

Recognise an ethical Issue

  • Could this decision or situation be damaging to someone or to some group? Does this decision involve a choice between a good and bad alternative, or perhaps between two “good options” or between two “bad options”?
  • Is this issue about more than what is legal or what is most efficient? If so, how?

Get the facts

  • What are the relevant facts of the case? What facts are not known? Can I learn more about the situation? Do I know enough to make a decision?
  • What individuals and groups have an important stake in the outcome? Are some concerns more important? Why?
  • What are the options for acting? Have all the relevant persons and groups been consulted? Have I identified creative options?

Evaluate alternative actions (Evaluate the options by asking the following questions)

  • Which option will produce the greatest good and do the least harm? (The Utilitarian Approach)
  • Which option best respects the rights of all who have a stake? (The Rights Approach)
  • Which option treats people equally or proportionately? (The Justice Approach)
  • Which option best serves the community as a whole, not just some members? (The Common Good Approach)
  • Which option leads me to act as the sort of person I want to be? (The Virtue Approach)

Make a decision and test it

  • Considering all these approaches, which option best addresses the situation?
  • If I told someone I respect — or told a television audience — which option I have chosen, what would they say?

Act and Reflect on the Outcome

  • How can my decision be implemented with the greatest care and attention to the concerns of all stakeholders?
  • How did my decision turn out and what have I learned from this specific situation?

Ethical decision-making process flow chart

Building on this approach it is possible to map out an 8-stage flow chart that can help guide individual and organisational ethical decision making as follows:

1. Define the question, issue or problem

  • What is the question, issue or problem? As much as possible, has consensus been reached on what is the question, issue or problem?

2. Clarify the facts as much as possible

  • What are the established facts of the issues? (e.g., who, what, when, where, why, and how)
  • What don’t we know?
  • What are the relevant factors?
  • What assumptions are being made?
  • Are there constraints that need consideration? (e.g., critical supplies and human and financial resources)

3. Identify stakeholders and their perspectives

  • Who is affected by this decision, with particular attention to those who face barriers to participating and/or who are disproportionately affected?
  • How does each stakeholder see this issue (worldview and lived experience) and has there been a real attempt to understand and respect their perspectives?

4. Identify and analyse the principles and values

  • What are the principles and values pertaining to this decision?
  • Which principles and values conflict? What principles and values are being affirmed? What principles and values are being negated?
  • Which principles and values will be upheld and prioritized and what is the rationale/justification for the prioritisations?

5. Identify alternative courses of action in light of the principles and values

  • What are the relevant options, including if no action is taken?
  • What are the benefits and risks of each option (including intended and potential unintended consequences), as measured against the prioritised principles and values?

6. Make a decision

  • Which option best fulfils the prioritized principles and values pertaining to the decision at hand?
  • Is the chosen option/decision ethically defensible and justifiable based on the principles and values outlined in this framework?
  • Are there contingency plans in case the decision does not have the intended outcomes or creates possible conflicts?
  • Does the decision accord with the law and public health orders?

7. Implement the decision

  • Who will implement the decision?
  • What process and criteria for measuring will be used to evaluate the decision and outcome?

8. Review and document the decision

  • How will the decision be effectively communicated to all relevant stakeholders?
  • Who will be responsible for documenting, following-up and maintaining the decision?
  • Is there a process for reviewing decisions?

Applying ethical decision making to digital, data and technology

In the wider digital ethics collection, we have identified the following five key attributes of ethical practice which should inform the wider use of emerging technologies and data:

  • Beneficence: “Do Good”: That work is to the benefit, not detriment of individuals and society. The benefits of the work should outweigh the potential risks and there should be unmet need.
  • Non maleficence: “Do no Harm”: To avoid harm, including harm from malicious or unexpected uses, by recognising that the moral quality of a technology depends on its consequences. Conditional risks and benefits must therefore be weighed so as to avoid potential harms.
  • Autonomy: “Preserve Human Agency”: To enable people to make choices. To allow people to modify or override solutions when appropriate. This also requires people to have sufficient knowledge and understanding to decide.
  • Justice: “Be Fair”: That all benefits and risks should be distributed fairly. Solutions should promote fair treatment and equitable outcomes
  • Explicability: “Operate transparently”: To ensure that there is Intelligibility, transparency, trustworthiness, and accountability around how and why digital, data and technology solutions generate the outcomes they do.  Working and outputs should be explicable and explain how to use and when to trust solutions and approaches.

Taking these ethical practice attributes as a starting point and building on what we have seen as regards wider ethical decision-making approaches we can focus in on how they interact (and the questions they pose) with the key stages from discovery to delivery (see below) that organisations have to address with regards to the wider use of emerging technologies and data.

Stage 1: Discovery

Understand what the key ethical practice attributes are and the issues that need to be addressed and how they apply to DDaT approaches and solutions. 

Discover and define the issues around building trust in DDaT

  • Focus on building greater confidence in the use of new technologies.
  • Understand how the adoption of particular technologies or approaches may be damaging to individuals, groups or to the wider community.
  • Recognise that ethical DDaT adoption issues need to be about more than what is legal or what is most efficient.

Stage 2: Design

Identify the ethical principles and standards and that should inform DDaT design in partnership with stakeholders and the wider community.

Establish the facts around ethical DDaT design adoption

  • Identify the key facts around the issue you are seeking to resolve and what you need to know to make decisions.
  • Establish which individuals and groups have an important stake in the outcome Clarify your options for acting and ensure that the relevant stakeholders and groups are consulted.

Stage 3: Development

Develop DDaT approaches and solutions in line with the relevant core principles and standards that emerged in the design stage.

Evaluate and identify alternative development options

  • Evaluate the test options to establish which option will produce the greater good and do the least harm.
    Identify which option best respects the rights of all who have a stake and treats people equally or proportionately.
  • Focus on options that best serves the community as a whole, not just some members.

Stage 4: Deployment

Adopt and deploy the appropriate DDaT solutions that support smart placemaking and digitally inclusive communities

Deploy in line with robust ethical and accountability frameworks   

  • Prioritise how ethics principles interact and apply to the designing and fulfilling DDaT requirements
  • Establish robust accountability for the adoption and use of new technologies. Define what leaders, policy makers and practitioners need to do to deliver ethics and accountability in practice.

Stage 5: Delivery

Roll out DDaT approaches and establish transparent lines of ethical responsibility and accountability for place based operational services.

Deliver and reflect on outcomes and learnings

  • Establish how organisational DDaT delivery decisions can implemented with the greatest care and attention to the concerns of all stakeholders.
  • Evaluate how DDaT delivery decisions turn out and the organisational learnings from the ethics of specific situations. Develop and share “what works” ethical delivery Case Studies for sharing across the wider public/private sectors.

Pestel analysis and decision-making

PESTEL analysis can help to understand the possible impact of the external environment on the decision-making processes around a project or programme.

PESTEL in the middle with Political, Economics, Social, Technological, Legal and Environmental words around it in a circle.

P stands for Political, E for Economic, S for Social, T for Technological, E for Environmental and L for Legal. The key questions asked in a PESTEL analysis are as follows:

  • What is the political situation, how could this change in the future and how might this impact on community plans?
  • What are the key economic factors (e.g. inflation rate, interest rates, foreign exchange rates, economic growth patterns?)
  • How much importance do social factors and culture have e.g. trends and demographics including population change etc.?
  • What technological innovations may have a favourable or unfavourable impact on the community or this specific project?
  • What are the environmental concerns? These could include tourism, farming, agriculture, climate, weather, flooding, geographical location etc.
  • Is there any current legislation (i.e. laws) that might regulate the way in which the community wants to deliver its ambitions?

How important each factor is will vary by community and by project, but a PESTEL analysis can provide a useful overview of the external factors that may impact on implementation of key projects. It is a useful tool for understanding the ‘big picture’.

Socitm’s resources

Socitm’s Policy and Research resources offer a range of supporting insights that can inform a PESTEL analysis as follows:

Political

Policy themes (view)

  • Ethical and secure use of emerging technologies and data
  • Service design and transformation
  • Healthy and well communities
  • Leadership, diversity and skills
  • Modernising ICT service delivery

Digital Trends 2021 (view)

  • Consolidation and renewal
  • Inclusion and equality
  • Localism and urban redesign

Planting the flag #2 (view)

  • Democratic engagement and renewal

Covid 19 digital and ICT impact (view)

  • Remote Delivery versus remote working (data)
  • Estates rationalisation
  • Health and wellbeing,
  • Digital by necessity
  • Leadership and skills

Resource hub collections (view)

  • Digital Ethics
  • Harnessing data

Economic

Policy themes (view)

  • Service design and transformation
  • Healthy and well communities
  • Modernising ICT service delivery

Digital Trends 2021 (view)

  • Consolidation and renewal
  • Inclusion and equality
  • Localism and urban redesign
  • Economy
  • Supply chains and suppliers

Planting the flag #2 (view)

  • Distributed, place-based leadership and delivery
  • Virtual infrastructure
  • Data insights
  • Asset rationalisation
  • Living spaces

Covid 19 digital and ICT impact (view)

  • Estates rationalisation
  • Health and wellbeing,
  • Leadership and skills

Resource hub collections (view)

  • Digital Ethics
  • Harnessing data

Social

Policy themes (view)

  • Ethical and secure use of emerging technologies and data
  • Service design and transformation
  • Healthy and well communities
  • Leadership, diversity and skills
  • Modernising ICT service delivery

Digital Trends 2021 (view)

  • Consolidation and renewal
  • Workstyles
  • Inclusion and equality
  • Localism and urban redesign

Planting the flag #2 (view)

  • Distributed, place-based leadership and delivery
  • Democratic engagement and renewal
  • Service design
  • Workstyles
  • Virtual infrastructure
  • Data insights
  • Asset rationalisation
  • Living spaces

Covid 19 digital and ICT impact (view)

  • Remote delivery versus remote working (data)
  • Estates rationalisation
  • Health and wellbeing,
  • Digital by necessity
  • Leadership and skills

Resource hub collections (view)

  • Digital Ethics
  • Harnessing data

Technology

Policy themes (view)

  • Ethical and secure use of emerging technologies and data
  • Service design and transformation
  • Healthy and well communities
  • Leadership, diversity and skills
  • Modernising ICT service delivery

Digital Trends 2021 (view)

  • Workstyles
  • Service design
  • Data
  • Technologies

Planting the flag #2 (view)

  • Distributed, place-based leadership and delivery
  • Democratic engagement and renewal
  • Service design
  • Workstyles
  • Virtual infrastructure
  • Data insights
  • Asset rationalisation
  • Living spaces

Covid 19 digital and ICT impact (view)

  • Remote delivery versus remote working (data)
  • Estates rationalisation
  • Health and wellbeing
  • Digital by necessity
  • Leadership and skills

Resource hub collections (view)

  • Digital Ethics
  • Harnessing data

Environment

Policy themes (view)

  • Ethical and secure use of emerging technologies and data
  • Service design and transformation
  • Healthy and well communities
  • Leadership, diversity and skills
  • Modernising ICT service delivery

Digital Trends 2021 (view)

  • Consolidation and renewal
  • Inclusion and equality
  • Localism and urban redesign
  • Environment

Planting the flag #2 (view)

  • Distributed, place-based leadership and delivery
  • Democratic engagement and renewal
  • Service design
  • Workstyles
  • Virtual infrastructure
  • Data insights
  • Asset rationalisation
  • Living spaces

Covid 19 digital and ICT impact (view)

  • Remote Delivery versus Remote Working (Data)
  • Estates Rationalisation
  • Health and Wellbeing
  • Digital by Necessity
  • Leadership and Skills

Resource hub collections (view)

  • Digital Ethics
  • Harnessing data

Legal

Policy themes (view)

  • Ethical and secure use of emerging technologies and data
  • Service design and transformation
  • Leadership, diversity and skills
  • Modernising ICT service delivery

Digital Trends 2021 (view)

  • Consolidation and renewal
  • Workstyles
  • Inclusion and equality
  • Service design
  • Localism and urban redesign
  • Supply chains and suppliers
  • Data
  • Technologies

Planting the flag #2 (view)

  • Distributed, place-based leadership and delivery
  • Democratic engagement and renewal
  • Service design
  • Workstyles
  • Virtual infrastructure
  • Data insights
  • Asset rationalisation
  • Living spaces

Covid 19 digital and ICT impact (view)

  • Remote Delivery versus Remote Working (Data)
  • Estates Rationalisation
  • Health and Wellbeing,
  • Digital by Necessity
  • Leadership and Skills

Resource hub collections (view)

  • Digital Ethics
  • Harnessing data