Policy Lab is plunging into 2019 with a busy dance card, following our formal launch in December 2018.

We’ll be running projects that map the NSW Government’s digital policy position, enable the responsible and ethical use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and automated decision-making in government, and assist in the privacy-protective and secure deployment of sensor-enabled infrastructure to help better plan and model our towns and cities.

We’ll also be continuing work on our ‘rules as code’ project. In doing so, we’re joining a global community that is developing ways to use modern technology to create and apply legislation, regulation and policy in ways that better meet customer needs, service delivery and user satisfaction.

Making better, more accessible rules

We’ve embarked on a journey of applying human-centred design thinking to legislation and other rule-making in NSW. It’s an opportunity to rethink and modernise the policy process. We think we can make legislation, regulation and policy easier for the people of NSW to understand and apply. And we can make these rules machine-readable so they can be applied in ways that make them easier to comply with.

Examples of legislation, regulation and policy as code around the world

We’re not the first to this party. The NZ Service Innovation Lab has already done some great work in this area. We found several other examples around the world:

  • US District of Columbia makes its legislation available in XML format and publicly available for software developers to use and comment on
  • Demark has developed seven principles for digital-ready legislation that forms part of their legislative drafting process
  • New Zealand, Israel and Uruguay took their pension eligibility rules and used the French Government’s OpenFisca platform to visualise how legislation is interconnected and to assess pension eligibility
  • Governments and the private sector have developed custom apps, tools or guides that help citizens and business understand their rights and obligations, e.g. NZ SmartStart, Australian Checkbox app, UK DoNotPay app, and the Australian citizenship wizard
  • AustLii Australia is building an AI chatbot that interprets Australia’s Constitution (try it if you’ve ever considered your eligibility to stand for Parliament)
  • CSIRO Data61 Australia has a logic system to turn human-readable text into machine-readable code.

Some potential benefits to NSW citizens

So, how would machine-readable rules actually help people in NSW?

Well, the possibilities are broad but examples include:

  • Coded rules would help build websites that assist in working out entitlements and benefits you’re eligible for. This kind of functionality could be built into other processes, such as when you’re applying for a child to go to school, the application portal could help identify which child-related rebates you are eligible for.
  • Where rules are coded and accessible via Application Program Interfaces, regulated entities could link their business systems to the rules directly. When the rules change (for example, if new laws get passed), the systems would update automatically. This would simplify compliance and lower costs for businesses.

Outcomes of the first sprint and next steps

Our first sprint on ‘rules as code’ during training sessions for design thinking in December helped us refine our thinking. We’ve concluded that there are two sides to this coin.

Firstly, we need to develop ways for rules to be codified during the initial drafting process. This would open up a new realm of possibilities. For example, the draft code could be used to test various scenarios in which the rules would be applied, and pre-empt problems before they’re implemented. The draft code could be published for consultation, in the same way that draft legislation is. And once they are ready for release, the codified rules could be ready for integration into websites and business systems immediately. To make this work, we’ll need to find or develop a user-friendly interface for drafters to easily “code” their rules themselves, during the drafting process. That’s certain to be an ongoing project for us this year.

Secondly, we need to deal with our existing rules. So, we’re also looking for the low hanging fruit – sets of existing rules that we can codify and create an API to make it easier for businesses and people to understand these rules. In the next few months, the Policy Lab will be collaborating with the Digital NSW Accelerator (DNA) to build a Proof of Concept ‘rules engine’ and API to demonstrate how coding rules can lead to better service design.

Are you working on something similar? We’d love to hear about your experience and insights. Leave a comment below, tweet us @PolicyLabAU, or email us [email protected].