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Rules are made to be broken

Mike Riversdale, Guest Post. 20 November 2019, 7:19 am
Rules are made to be broken

If you know any the following hashtags (I'll link to Twitter use) #rulesascode#betterrules, or #legislationascode then you'll have a rough idea as to what I'm going to write about. Let's assume though that you have never seen them before, and if you're inside New Zealand that's high likely even though this started as Kiwi government concept - "world famous outside of New Zealand", I paraphrase one of the Better Rules front runners, Nadia Webster.

So what is it - I think this, from the online discussion hosted by the New Zealand government's Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) is a great start:

The models of creating, managing, using and improving the "rules" of government (policy, legislation, regulation and business rules) are traditionally developed for use in a non-digital - paper - environment. In an ever increasing digital world this creates inefficiencies and also can impact on the effectiveness of policies - i.e. the original intent is not achieved. 
New digital technologies and the effective use of government data presents opportunities to better deliver to the needs of citizens and business. To fully realise these opportunities, policies and rules need to be developed in a manner that recognises the context of the business or citizen experience, and enable digital service delivery. Including through artificial intelligence and blockchain applications. A different approach would be to develop authoritative and reusable sources of machine consumable legislation and rules in conjunction with the human-readable versions. 
Making legislation available as "code" contributes to open-government and enables NGOs, communities and private sector to be part of a government services ecosystem.

Note: I'm going to use 'rules' to mean "'rules' of government (policy, legislation, regulation and business rules)".

So, it's a way of augmenting 'rules' creation that ensure they are both legible and usable by humans and machines. I would note that whilst there is some 'translation' to be done on existing legislation the central idea is to generate processes, standards, and outputs that assist creators to end up with 'rules' that are, by default, usable by both humans and machines - not one over the other, not one that can then be translated into the other, but by default both - you can't have one without the other - you cannot have your pudding if you've not eaten your meat, so to speak.

Both the idea, the major initial work, alongside proof of concepts (PoC) were performed by the DIA-hosted Service Innovation Lab (now defunct) here in New Zealand but the idea, discussion, and ongoing progress quickly spread around the world thanks to both an open approach, a connected set of advocates, and an inherent 'pain' that many feel.

So there, that's my view of what it is, where it is, and who it is.
The "when it is" is an interesting question - it's both a fast moving subject with many attempting to replicate and grow from the initial New Zealand PoC. I do not pretend to be across all of these and point those that which to know more or get involved to hunt out the contacts as listed below.

Now I can talk about my growing sense of 'uncomfortableness' with the Better Rules approach as recently highlighted by a tweet:

I'm starting to move away from #rulesascode / #legislationascode - I don't think it's a path of happiness and I'm not convinced we should walk it

Despite being a self-proclaimed tech optimist I'm not one that embraces shiny stuff, or leaps into the fray just because everyone else does. And even when I have, for instance "going to the cloud" since the mid-2000s (when it was called "Web 2.0", yes I've been along on that particular journey since it was a glint in the eyes of many), I am very well aware of the cons alongside the sales pitch of the pros.

My biggest issue is how #RulesAsCode is the seeming rush to atomise the law into rules that machines can then ingest. Look, I'm not saying that's inherently a bad thing, and the approach of having one source of truth, made available via an open API for others to utilise would certainly ensure consistency - imagine any number of 'apps' in all the different forms such as via the open web, on an iPhone, using voice on your talky-talky speaker, all being able to tell you with one consistent and authoritative 'voice' that yes, you are eligible for that tax rebate, that increase in accommodation supplement, or sole parent support.

"Hey Google, I've just had a baby, update my status please." 
"Awesome Mike, I have adjusted your status and you are now receiving the 2023 Baby Allowance directly into your bank account." 
"Thanks Alexa." 
"Pleasure. The team at IRD pass on their congratulations and would like you to know ..."

And these status/calculation focused pieces of legislation are definitely the low hanging fruit (ugh!) for the majority of #LegislationAsCode being investigated around the world.

It does have it's limitations however, and Rules as Code is not aiming to replace judgement-based policies (such as those around health care or justice). Right now we are focusing on purely prescriptive calculation-based rules such as energy savings eligibility and permit requirements for charity gaming. 
Rules As Code - Damian Dzieduch (Jun 26, 2019)

I remember the promise of "the cloud" back in it's early days - heck, I was one the more vocal proponents and made a living from the promise, "For a pittance of your current budget just move to the cloud and you can have 'enterprise' applications that are updated with aesomeoness without you needing to lift a finger, and all with more security than you could ever do yourself. Oh, and you can connect to anyone and work from anywhere at anytime, BONUS!"

Still the promise from salespeople of all types.

If I re-write that cloud promise I would come up with something like, "For consistency* just add machine readable code to legislation and you can have services that are updated with awesomeness without you needing to lift a finger, and all with more convenience than you could ever do yourself. Oh, and you can manage across silos and determine services from anywhere at anytime, BONUS!"

* I struggle to articulate the WHY, the pain that is being addressed - is it speed, consistency, one source of truth, accountability, cheaper implementation, delivery cost saving? Probably all, which is a recipe for distraction and potential failure.

Anyway, it's the "BONUS!" that makes me uncomfortable.
Here's why. As with the promise of "the cloud" it sounds fantastic, but then as the competitive drive to deliver more and more benefits the underlying need to collect data, to aim at specific groupings, and even to make more money we move into unethical and law bending behaviour.

"Hey Google, I've just sold one my businesses." 
"Congratulations. I have adjusted the appropriate official records and ensured you have a zero tax liability." 
"Thanks Alexa." 
"Pleasure. The Panama team at Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel pass on their congratulations and thank you for your custom."

Nothing illegal but do we want to travel the road that ends up here - and this is a mild example, I'm sure you with your wilder imagination can come up with many more, perhaps whole swathes of society being disadvantaged somehow - get your AI dystopian thinking caps on and leave your comments.

I am uncomfortable that we are taking the firs steps along this road, just like we did the early days of the cloud revolution.

I'm not alone in feeling "uncomfortable":

What bad can come of this? It's not suggested to be used for things that require human judgement or allow choice. It's codifying definitive rules to release as an API for service providers to use (as guidance) to make UX, rules, enforcement better. (from @andeepittmanux)

and from @br3nda:

If you want a story, and yet anothe example of why #rulesascode and #legislationascode must not be a neural net algorithm we can't inspect

All of which is NOT to say that those working on Better Rules should stop, need to get defensive, or indeed do anything more than continue the conversation:

I would value a coffee and exploration of that (@verbman)

Ok, Hamish and all others, let's do it and until then I leave you all with the following:

The thing that really struck my friend was just how offensive it was in terms of simplicity. The magic source is what it says on the tin, multi-disciplinary teams + a conceptual approach that includes having to describe your policy to a machine.

So I think my next major focus while being hands-on on a number of #RulesasCode projects is to find the time to focus on the challenge of increasing the number of opportunities for peeps to experience this approach we're calling #BetterRules.

Hamish nails the way forward, it will take everyone being involved to ensure we all "get it", and most importantly we are on the journey because, when it comes down to it, I am a tech optimist and believe, as I did in the early days of "the cloud", that the benefits can be be society changing ... but let's learn from history before rushing head first into the future.

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Further reading

Mike is an ICT storyteller, tech event organiser, and open government / data consultant. Reposted with kind permission.


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