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Guest blog post by Belinda Yee, User Experience Research Lead, of the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation’s (CSIRO) Data61

Regulatory systems are necessary, but often subject to change, hard to understand and difficult to navigate. The complexity of the law makes it difficult for businesses and the public to understand their entitlements, rights and obligations.

This is as true in New Zealand as it is in Australia and elsewhere around the world, but a new industry built on ‘legislation-as-code’ is providing opportunities to address these issues.

Data61, CSIRO’s data science and technology arm, is developing a technology called Regulation as a Platform (RaaP). It provides a way to represent complex legal rules and policies in a machine-understandable format. Essentially RaaP supports the translation of legislation to code. The technology includes a new logic format (Deontic Defeasible Logic - see research papers on this), an encoding tool to write, debug and visualise legislation, a reasoner and APIs (application progamming interfaces).

Data61 and the Service Innovation Lab (SIL) trialed the technology in New Zealand. Underpinned by RaaP, SIL built a service application based on legislation-as-code. The application is SmartStart financial help - an online tool to check family benefit entitlements. This application required 18 benefits across two government agencies to be encoded. Impressively the SIL team encoded the rules, tested the solution and developed the online tool in only three weeks. Kudos!

What we learnt

The cross-Tasman collaboration between Data61 and the SIL team was fantastic and a recent two-day workshop in Wellington, to review the SmartStart trial revealed these key lessons:

Who encodes legislation?

The industry in Australia and abroad has been developing with the assumption regulators alone encode rules. The SmartStart trial however, demonstrated that collaboration between engineers and regulators provides an efficient and successful model for converting legislation into digital rules (developers encode rules and policy owners verify them). This refinement of the user definition is guiding improvements to the RaaP user experience.

Co-Design to capture legislative intent

Another obstacle for encoding legislation is capturing legislative intent. Legislation can be ambiguous and open to interpretation. So it’s important to get policy owners and rule encoders to agree their understanding of the legislative intent. The co-design process trialed in New Zealand showed how this can be achieved. The RaaP design team look forward to trialing the same co-design process in the Australian context.

When focusing on complex problems it’s important to look up

The SIL workshops and SmartStart collaboration enabled a broader analysis of the rule encoding process. This broader view is identifying new problems to solve, and new opportunities for Data61. For example, before encoding the rules, teams need to invest significant time in mapping legislation and developing ontologies. If viewed as an opportunity, we can think about ways to streamline the process and use the maps and ontologies to simplify rule encoding.

Next steps

Next steps for the RaaP team involve working closely with government agencies and other stakeholders to:

  • Develop tools to simplify the rule encoding process

  • Develop more powerful de-bugging and visualisation tools to verify the rules

  • Investigate ways natural language processing can improve rule encoding

  • Develop, test and refine a co-design process for the Australian context

  • Investigate other opportunities for Data61 to support the regulation technology industry

The industry developing open access legislation-as-code is still evolving, and the technologies to support it are under development. Successful collaborations like the one between Data61’s RaaP team and the SIL team in New Zealand provide lessons that are already informing technology development and providing insights into new ways to democratise access to the law.

 As legislation-as-code continues to build momentum, it will enable Governments to deliver better services, allow businesses to easily understand their compliance obligations and create equitable access to the rules which govern our lives.


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