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In the Service Innovation Lab, we’re constantly identifying reusable components that could improve the user experience with government through service integration across agencies. Gaining cross agency access to the “rules” of government is critical to seamless and integrated services. This includes the eligibility criteria or calculations for benefits or entitlements across different agencies for a single life event - the financial assistance eligibility tool for SmartStart powered by a digital rules engine, is a good example of this.

Right now, these rules are largely kept in legislation, but also in operational policy and practice. So, to get an all of government view of the rules for cross agency service delivery, we identified machine consumable(1) legislation as an area to explore, as a possible reusable component. We did a short 3 week discovery on the notion of “better rules” starting with the idea of machine consumable rules, which also explored the connection between policy, legislation and implementation, and how they could work more closely together for better public outcomes. You can read more about what we did, what we learnt, and our recommendations for taking these ideas further in the full Better Rules for Government Discovery Report.

‘Machine consumable’ for the purpose of this work means having particular types of rules available in a code or code-like form that software can understand and interact with, such as a calculation, the eligibility criteria for a benefit or automated financial reporting obligations for compliance.


Late last year a group of people from different government agencies came together to make connections across policy, regulation, legislation and service innovation. We soon realised a common thread was the challenges and opportunities of creating machine consumable government ‘rules’ (policy, legislation, regulation and business rules) to enable better service delivery. See the blog post about what we discussed.

From late January 2018 the Service Innovation Lab team facilitated a multidisciplinary team from Inland Revenue (IR), Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE), Parliamentary Counsel Office (PCO) and a private sector software company in a 3 week Discovery Sprint.

Problem and opportunities

The traditional models of creating, managing, using and improving the rules of government were developed for use in a non-digital environment, and can result in a mismatch between policy intent and implementation. New digital technologies and the effective use of government data present opportunities to better deliver to people’s needs. To fully realise these opportunities, however, policy and rules need to be developed in a manner that recognises the context of impacted people and systems, and enables digital service delivery where appropriate.

Making government rules machine consumable so they can be used by service delivery systems is fast becoming a key component in the digital transformation of governments, particularly as we seek to integrate service delivery, automate information exchange and some decision making, while also ensuring government transparency, responsiveness and accountability.


We applied a service design approach to understand the current state, propose a future state and approach and test our assumptions against two existing pieces of New Zealand legislation.

This 3 week discovery was the first step on our journey to understand the opportunities and challenges of creating human and machine consumable rules, and where to direct future efforts. We also recognised that not all rules are suitable for machine consumption. Part of this work was understanding what features of legislation are suitable to be made available in machine consumable format.


We explored and defined an approach to the policy development and implementation process that generates a core and common understanding across disciplines that can be iteratively refined at each stage of the process, and provides consistency across the whole process. This sets the system up to deliver and manage equivalent human and machine consumable rules.

Key findings

  1. It is difficult to produce machine consumable rules if the policy and legislation has not been developed with this output in mind.
  2. An effective way of developing such policy and legislation is for multidisciplinary teams of policy analysts, legislative drafters, service designers and software developers to co-design the policy and legislation, taking a user-centric approach that focuses on how the service could most effectively be delivered. In this case ‘user’ can mean people and technology systems as the end users of machine consumable rules.
  3. Co-designing rules with policy and service design increases the chances of the policy being implemented effectively and as intended, and can reduce the time it takes to deliver on the policy intent.
  4. Machine consumable legislation that is co-developed:
    • enables legislation, business rules, and service delivery software to be developed in parallel, ensuring consistency of application, and significantly speeding up the service delivery to people
    • increases the opportunities to automate and integrate service delivery (including through the use of artificial intelligence).
  5. Common frameworks, reference points and data points (like concept and decision models and ontologies(2)) will assist multi-disciplinary teams to co-design policy and legislation and, once developed, can be used as blueprints for the development of human and machine consumable rules without the need for further translation of the intent and logic (which, in turn, reduces the time and resources required and the chances of errors).
  6. Not all legislation is suitable for machine consumption, but a multi-disciplinary approach will assist in making better rules.

Our proposed approach to the development of equivalent human and machine consumable rules could help support:

  • faster and better delivery of policy intent
  • services that are designed to be delivered in the most effective and user-centered manner
  • modelling and testing of outcomes
  • digital transformation of government
  • legislative reform
  • accountability of public and private measures and decision-making.

(2) In this context we define ‘ontology’ as a set of terms or concepts, their definitions and their relationships with other concepts. This can be a thought of as a non-hierarchical categorisation of concepts that conveys more meaning than just the definition of terms.

What’s next

Since the completion of the Discovery Sprint the ‘Better Rules’ team has been out talking to policy and service delivery groups in government. We will continue to talk to people about this work and to continue to test our assumptions about its applicability. The Discovery Report includes a list of areas for further investigation . We are keen to work with others to pursue these questions (and other questions we haven’t thought of yet).

Let us know if you are interested in collaborating with us.

If you want to be kept up to date on our continued work on machine consumable rules you can sign up to our mailing list.

Post your comment


  1. Nicholas Car 10/04/2018 11:21am (17 months ago)

    Well done NZ - very impressive that you are able to zero in on the requirements for co-design for machine-actionable rules. In Australia, we have various groups that sort of understand this but not too many results to demonstrate yet. I look forward to our Dept. of Human Services learning from your work here.



  2. Mikael af Hällström 21/05/2018 7:55pm (15 months ago)

    Very impressive indeed, as the national CIO of our southern neighbour already noted - we in Finland might be able to provide some assistance with the "global ontologies" part of the proposed future approach.
    My colleagues are presenting the following at SEMIC2018 in Bulgaria (June):

    "Building Semantically Interoperable Data Flows for Digital Services in Finland

    In Finland we are transforming public services being primarily digital and the more we rely on digitalisation in our transaction and businesses, the more we need to ensure that machine to machine communication can take place at high speed. And that we humans still understand the data and its meaning flowing in these transactions. By following EIF guidelines, we have developed a common framework and basic infrastructure for metadata management by combining terminological theory, linked data and adaptable data modelling practices. Actions in semantic interoperability and data management are complemented by a matching tool, National Interoperability Platform. Semantic technologies and linked data are used to describe machine- and human-readable terminology, national core vocabularies and context-specific application profiles for automated service delivery. Collaborative tool helps us to promote cross-domain cooperation and governance model and it also offers a new way to create and maintain linkages to relevant existing international work and resources, e.g. e-Government Core Vocabularies. "

    All of this is open-source which means that NZ could adopt the framework and tools > will gladly assist you in this since we're going to pick up your ideas regarding machine consumable legislation anyway :-)

    • Nadia Webster 21/05/2018 8:30pm (15 months ago)

      Thanks Mikael.
      It would be great to learn more about what you're working on and collaborate around ontologies.

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