Dismantling Digital Cages: Examining Design Practices for Public Algorithmic Systems

Sem Nouws*, M.F.W.H.A. Janssen, Roel Dobbe

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Conference proceedings/Edited volumeConference contributionScientificpeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)
17 Downloads (Pure)


Algorithmic systems used in public administration can create or reinforce digital cages. A digital cage refers to algorithmic systems or information architectures that create their own reality through formalization, frequently resulting in incorrect automated decisions with severe impact on citizens. Although much research has identified how algorithmic artefacts can contribute to digital cages and their unintended consequences, the emergence of digital cages from human actions and institutions is poorly understood. Embracing a broader lens on how technology, human activity, and institutions shape each other, this paper explores what design practices in public organizations can result in the emergence of digital cages. Using Orlikowski’s structurational model of technology, we found four design practices in observations and interviews conducted at a consortium of public organizations. This study shows that design processes of public algorithmic systems (1) are often narrowly focused on technical artefacts, (2) disregard the normative basis for these systems, (3) depend on involved actors’ awareness of socio-technics in public algorithmic systems, (4) and are approached as linear rather than iterative. These four practices indicate that institutions and human actions in design processes can contribute to the emergence of digital cages, but also that institutional – opposed to technical – possibilities to address their unintended consequences are often ignored. Further research is needed to examine how design processes in public organizations can evolve into socio-technical processes, can become more democratic, and how power asymmetries in the design process can be mitigated.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationElectronic Government - 21st IFIP WG 8.5 International Conference, EGOV 2022, Proceedings
EditorsMarijn Janssen, Csaba Csáki, Ida Lindgren, Ulf Melin, Euripidis Loukis, Gabriela Viale Pereira, Manuel Pedro Rodríguez Bolívar, Efthimios Tambouris
Number of pages16
ISBN (Print)9783031150852
Publication statusPublished - 2022
Event21st IFIP WG 8.5 International Conference on Electronic Government, EGOV 2022 - Linköping, Sweden
Duration: 6 Sep 20228 Sep 2022

Publication series

NameLecture Notes in Computer Science (including subseries Lecture Notes in Artificial Intelligence and Lecture Notes in Bioinformatics)
Volume13391 LNCS
ISSN (Print)0302-9743
ISSN (Electronic)1611-3349


Conference21st IFIP WG 8.5 International Conference on Electronic Government, EGOV 2022

Bibliographical note

Green Open Access added to TU Delft Institutional Repository ‘You share, we take care!’ – Taverne project https://www.openaccess.nl/en/you-share-we-take-care Otherwise as indicated in the copyright section: the publisher is the copyright holder of this work and the author uses the Dutch legislation to make this work public.


  • Design process
  • Digital cage
  • Public algorithmic system
  • Structuration


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