Anne Kaun

Rethinking the Digital Welfare State

In a world where automation is thought to increase productivity and efficiency with less effort and at lower costs, what happens to democratic values when this logic is deployed to support decisions in the welfare sector? During the sabbatical I will synthesize my previous work on the extensive implementation of automated decision-making in the welfare sector in Sweden in a book-length monograph being one of the first to systematically link automation to questions of shrinking trust, decline in civic participation and in extension challenges for democracy. Data-based infrastructures for public administration are shaping not only welfare provision, but also state-citizen relations and open up questions of ethics and accountability, human agency in relation to complex socio-technical systems as well as biases and inequalities. The planned book foregrounds the perspective of citizens both in terms of the introduction process and its democratic implications. Drawing on my previous research that has combined extensive mapping, policy analysis, organisational ethnographies, surveys, in-depth interviews and expert interviews, the book engages with the a) policies b) the practices and c) attitudes and implications of automated decision-making. The book will provide an in-depth and cutting-edge understanding of the process of automating welfare from a Swedish perspective producing highly relevant insights into how automated decision-making can support but also harm democracy.
Final report
Rethinking the Digital Welfare State
The Sabbatical project Rethinking the Digital Welfare State had the aim to synthetize my work on algorithms, artificial intelligence, and automated decision-making in the public sector and for welfare and prepare a book-length publication. In earlier projects, I have explored automated decision-making in the context of broader changes of the welfare state and investigated the intricate linkages between automated decision-making and changes in welfare provision. The projects have addressed the question to what extend and how different welfare institutions are working with automated decision-making, how the organization of the welfare state changing with automated decision-making in Sweden and what the implications of automated decision-making are from a citizens’ perspective. The RJ Sabbatical allowed me to bring these different perspectives and findings together and develop them further at length.

The most important result is a monograph that is in its final stage and will be published in 2024 with Sage. The book develops the notion of the data welfare state based on the empirical work that I have conducted with previous collaborators across Europe. The book discusses algorithmic automation in public services and welfare institutions to outline the contours of the data welfare state. The major starting point is that large-scale digitalization that is the precondition for automation has fundamentally transformed the welfare state. This has important implications for the citizens, both when it comes to direct outcomes of how welfare provision is administered but also in terms of state-citizen relations. The book particularly focuses hence on the implications of algorithmic automation for trust and public values from the perspective of the people implicated in the process.

Empirically, the book draws on analyses of how case workers relate to algorithmic automation in their daily work, responses to automated decision-making by citizens, and civil society organizations to capture visions for regulating automated decision-making in a sustainable manner to strengthen democracy and participation. Material was collected through expert interviews with civil society and watchdog organizations that engage in questions of automated decision-making, and data ombudsmen. Based on these empirical material the book develops in-depth thematically analyses that include practices of relating to complex technological systems and changing professions in the welfare sector (implementation), implications for citizens in terms of quality of service, biases and justice (experiences) and lastly possibilities to resist and influence the transformation of the welfare state from below (resistance). Based on these explorations the book ends with a concluding chapter that imagines an alternative data welfare state that is based in principles of justice, non-discrimination, universalism as well as acknowledgement of different capabilities

New directions
During my sabbatical, new questions and directions emerged. In particular, I have been increasingly interested in comparative research on digital welfare provision across European countries. Comparative research provides important insights on the particularities of technological change in the context of different welfare regimes while the very technologies implemented are often presented with an aura of universalism. Following this growing interest, I have started a collaboration with European colleagues which lead to a successful application within the Chanse consortium framework. A second new research direction that emerged during the sabbatical is the work with creative and participatory methods including mind scripting and future visions workshop around which my current empirical work evolves. These methods allow for more open-ended ways to involve research participants in the knowledge production process. This seems especially crucial in relation to complex socio-technical systems that are often black boxed and depicted as hard to understand.

In addition to these two new research directions, I am increasingly interested in developing a typology of digital welfare technologies incorporating a distinction between front end and backend services. Since applying for the RJ sabbatical discussion have furthermore shifted towards artificial intelligence and algorithmic automation that I am increasingly focusing current research endeavors on.

International collaborations
During my sabbatical allowed me a research visit at the Leibnitz Institute for Media Research / Hans-Bredow-Institute in Hamburg (February until July 2022) and a shorter research visit at Leipzig University (October until November 2022). The visits and the general start of the Sabbatical were slightly delayed due to the pandemic and a back lock in my other research engagements. From the two research visits emerged a solid network that resulted in among others the above-mentioned successful consortium application.
Grant administrator
Södertörn University
Reference number
SEK 1,527,000.00
RJ Sabbatical
Communication Studies