Rules as Code: Seeking contributions

Written by on 2 December 2019

Last week, OPSI released the “Hello, World: Artificial Intelligence and its use in the Public Sector” primer on AI. This followed our first innovation primer, “Blockchains Unchained”, and explores how this much-hyped but highly complex area can be better understood by practitioners. It also helps to empower individuals seeking to implement AI in a government context, by giving them knowledge of key opportunities, challenges, and lessons learnt from around the globe.

In 2020, we’re planning to explore the growing (and exciting) movement around Rules as Code.

Governments function on the basis of rules. Yet, while our world has become increasingly digital, the rules that govern the lives of citizens and the operations of businesses remain overwhelmingly analogue. What’s more, the processes that underpin their creation have remained largely untouched by digital transformation and the opportunities presented by it.

In this new operating environment, the conventional approaches used by governments to draft, interpret and apply rules are under pressure. Heightened interconnectedness within and across nations, for example, has increased the complexity of designing regulation that effectively realises its original policy intent. The accelerating pace of change has intensified this challenge, requiring that governments are more responsive and more adaptable than ever before. For citizens and businesses, as well, these forces have made understanding and complying with their responsibilities as set out in legislation, policies and regulation increasingly difficult.

Globally, innovators are looking to address these problems by making rules machine readable (or consumable, in some cases). Machine readable means presenting information or data in a structured format that can be processed by a computer without (or with minimal) human intervention and without loss of semantic meaning. Rules as Code presents a new approach to designing rules for human and machine consumption.

In 2018, the New Zealand Government undertook a discovery on Better Rules which explored opportunities for a Rules as Code approach. The French Government’s has also built Mes Aides, a service which can assess a person’s eligibility for 30 benefits in less than 7 minutes on the basis of coded taxation rules. These are just some of the examples we know about and we expect that there is more great work happening around the world.

How could Rules as Code help enable the transformation of government?

The Rules as Code movement involves rethinking a core function of government and reinventing it for compatibility with our digital age. This opens up myriad possibilities for government service delivery, greater public-private partnerships, as well as innovation in regulation and compliance.

Machine consumable rules could strengthen the ability of policy makers to navigate growing complexity and improve responsiveness. In making rules more explicit and thus consumable, governments should be better able to model interconnections between them and simulate the effects of potential changes. This could also drive greater transparency, for example, by making the workings of government more understandable and by providing new avenues for citizen feedback.

Rules as Code represents an innovative approach to old problems. While there are challenges and implications to consider (for example, not all laws are clear-cut), its potential to transform the operations of government is significant. If government is to be truly responsive, transparent and effective, then Rules as Code could be an important part of making this a reality.

A primer: New rules for a new era

We’ve written about Rules as Code before. It featured in Embracing Innovation in Government – Global Trends Report 2019, produced by OPSI and in partnership with the Mohammed Bin Rashid Centre for Government Innovation (MBRCGI). However, to explore the relevant issues and opportunities further, we at OPSI, working with our OECD colleagues in digital government and regulatory technology, are planning to draft a primer that looks at the following questions:

  1. What are digital rules?
    • What problems can they help to solve?
    • How can they enable digital transformation in the public sector?
  2. What approaches can be used to create digital rules?
    • Rules as Code
  3. What are the potential implications and how could we begin to address them?

How can you get involved?

We would like to invite policymakers, regulators, civil servants, and those in industry and civil society to contribute to this work. We are looking for:

  • case studies highlighting Rules as Code initiatives (or related concepts) being applied in government contexts around the world; and,
  • information, resources or research related to the subject.

If you have another type of contribution to make or you would simply like to follow the conversation, you should also reach out. Contact us by commenting below, tweeting us @OPSIgov with the hashtag #RulesAsCode, or emailing [email protected] by the 22nd of December 2019.

Rules as Code can help unlock myriad possibilities for the transformation of government and we’re looking forward to hearing from you on how we can help make this happen.

  1. Hi James, nice blog. This is back on the agenda in govX and we have recently started discussions about working with NZ. So chances are good DTA will be interested in contributing to this work next year.
    Hope you’re doing well

    • Hi Nerida – thank-you – I’m glad you enjoyed it. It’s great to hear that govX is exploring this topic again and that possible initiatives are in the pipeline. Please keep me updated on the progress? It’s great to hear from you and I hope you’re well also! Very best

  2. Hi James, Nice initiative. I also believe that there is a huge potential in this area. I also think that a thread on Rule as code ethics should be started.
    Working for the ISA2 programme Legal Interoperability action, I am eager to follow your work and possibly to contribute when our strategy in this regard will be defined.

  3. Hi Cécile, thanks for reaching out – I agree that the concept has great potential. And, certainly, we are also conscious of the need to try to anticipate any likely (or unintended) consequences. The ethical aspects of RaC, as well as potential legal implications, are something we are definitely interested in exploring. It would be great to have you involved and I will be sure to reach out as the work progresses. All the best.

  4. ‘Governments function on the basis of rules.’
    Ouch! Really? For the services that I work with in the public sector, apart from those like ordering a passport or driving license, it is the following of rules that create the biggest problems for the people the public service is trying to help. Surely the reality of the public sector is about taking rules and adapting them to being flexible to deal with peoples needs?

    • Hi John, thanks for your contribution. While I stand by the claim that governments function on basis of rules (for better or worse), you have highlighted an important distinction that needs to made when talking about RaC. The RaC approach is most suited to objective, rather than principle-based, rules. Making these rules machine-consumable could result in a number of benefits. For example, it may make it easier for people to understand their obligations and entitlements (for example, by enabling the creation of eligibility tools or calculators), while also improving the ease of compliance for businesses. More generally, the approach to RaC that emphasises the co-creation of human and machine-consumable rules through a multidisciplinary team may help ensure that rules being developed actually realise the initial policy intent. By extension, then, this should improve the quality of the service delivery outcomes subsequently generated.

  5. Great initiative.
    Code needs absolute precision, both in the logic being applied and the definitions of the data to which the logic is applied.
    Regulations are written by Lawyers, solutions are written by programmers. There is a chasm to bridge between the two.
    It can be done and initiatives like the FCA’s “Digital Regulatory Reporting” programme are heading in the right direction.

    • Hi Stewart, thanks for your comment. I also see definition as essential, which is why RaC probably lends itself best to specific types of rules. Additionally, I think the chasm you’ve highlighted may be best addressed through the use of multi-disciplinary teams – which several RaC experiments have used to date. These are definitely issues we will seek to explore in the primer.

    • Hi Olaf-Gerd, thank-you for taking the time to engage with the blog. I look forward to reading the resources you have provided here. Standards are certainly something we are thinking about in relation to RaC. I will reach out to set up a time for a discussion. Best, James

  6. “The RaC approach is most suited to objective, rather than principle-based, rules”. Absolutely agree with this.

    However, this “objectivity” can be very tricky indeed (at least in common law jurisdictions like USA, UK etc.), for reasons related to how law/regulation is interpreted in practice.

    The passage of time, has a hugely important role to play in any RaC system because laws/regs can stay the same (the source code in RaC) while the interpretation layer (case law/professional guidance from SRO etc.) can change, resulting in the interpretation of the laws/regs needing to change. When you combine this with the open-ended (“interpretation required”) nature of a lot of legal language you end up with a big challenge turning this into the form of logic that computers excel at : monotonic reasoning.

    As a computer scientist by training, I used to think that law needed to be “fixed” by converting it into a monotonic corpus but as the decades rolled by working with law every day, I slowly began to appreciate the value of this non-monotinic approach.

    I wrote a series of posts on my blog about this:

    I am all in favor of RaC when it makes sense but there are many potential pitfalls to be aware of:-)

    Sean McGrath
    CTO, Propylon

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