Exploring opportunities for digital legislation, policy and rules

Imagine a world where government rules are easy to find, understand and follow.

The Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) and Department of Human Services (DHS) have started a whole-of-government conversation about digital legislation, policy and rules. This has brought together a range of initiatives already underway into one discussion, including those involving CSIRO’s Data61 who have an active program of work in this space.

By bringing people together we are exploring how digital legislation can help transform the way government delivers services for people and businesses.

What do we mean by digital legislation, policy and rules?

It involves making legislation, policy and rules available so they can be consumed or interpreted by a machine. To borrow the NZ Government’s Better Rules for Government explanation, machine consumable 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.”

What are the problems we are trying to solve?

Our life event-based research tells us that people are often unsure about their entitlements and obligations when interacting with government. This can result in people applying for the wrong payments, missing a payment or not meeting their compliance requirements.

We also know that people who are trying to start or grow a business can perceive the government and the rules they need to follow as a barrier.

For government, managing complex legislation and the associated business rules presents challenges when delivering services. Multiple agencies are often required to interpret shared legislation and rules, which can sometimes result in inconsistencies.

What can be done about it?

These problems are not unique to Australia. Governments around the world are exploring how they can make legislation, policy and rules more consumable by people and machines.

Denmark, for example, has looked at their legislative drafting process and created principles for writing digital ready legislation, while New Zealand has explored this concept through their Better Rules for Government Discovery.

In Australia, CSIRO’s Data61 has an ongoing RegTech program to digitise legislation into machine interpretable rules and make them traceable to original legal texts.

The New South Wales Government’s Policy Lab also kicked off a ‘Rules as Code’ project in 2019, where they are exploring ways to make legislation, regulation and policy easier for the people of NSW to understand and apply.

Why is this important?

This is a concept with the potential to transform how the Australian Government delivers services, and how people and businesses can understand and comply with rules.

Opportunities in this space can span multiple agencies, jurisdictions, teams and skill sets.

What are we doing?

To help us understand the potential opportunities and impact across government we have partnered with DHS to set up a Digital Legislation Working Group.

This group includes members from:

  • Office of Parliamentary Counsel
  • Department of Education and Training
  • Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet
  • Attorney-General’s Department
  • Department of the Treasury
  • Department of Social Services
  • Australian Taxation Office
  • Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission
  • NSW Government Department of Customer Service (previously, the Department of Finance, Services and Innovation)
  • CSIRO’s Data 61

Together, we have started to explore the concept of digital legislation, the current process, people involved and some of the challenges we think we could address.

A person smiles and another person puts post-it notes on a wall while an audience watches.

What we have learnt so far?

Some of the key insights from our initial meetings include:

Taking a human and digital first approach

It’s not only important to focus on how we might make it easier for a machine to consume legislation, but also how we might make it easier for humans to author and read. There is potential for us to do both.

Bridging the gap between drafting and coding

One way we could do this is to bring together drafters, instructors and coders into a multi-disciplinary team to test and design future approaches.

There is value in small bites

We know there is a lot of complexity in this space and because of this it is important to start small and iterate. We think there will be some key opportunities that are small in scope but could deliver significant value.

Where should we start?

The concept of digital legislation can be quite daunting. However, we have already seen the value of bringing together people from diverse roles, skill sets and jurisdictions.

One of the opportunities we have identified so far is to form a cross-agency multidisciplinary team to test approaches for developing machine consumable legislation, policy or rules.

Another opportunity is to define best practice principles that inform the development of human and machine consumable legislation.

We plan on bringing the working group back together soon to agree on the opportunity to take forward. If you are working on something similar or would like more information, reach out to the govX team at govx@dta.gov.au.

James Mohun is a Digital Analyst at the DTA and Colleen Considine is the Lead User Researcher at the DTA