LabPlus: Better Rules for Government Discovery Report

Nadia   Webster
Nadia Webster Service Innovation Lab, New Zealand Department of Internal Affairs Read Author Bio || Read All Articles by Nadia Webster

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[1] 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[2] 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.[3]


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.[4]

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[5]) 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.

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 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).[6]


[1] return to article

[2]  '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. return to article

[3] return to article

[4]  See the blog post about what we discussed. return to article

[5]  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.  return to article

[6]  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. return to article

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Standard citation for this article:

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Nadia Webster , "LabPlus: Better Rules for Government Discovery Report" Business Rules Journal Vol. 19, No. 8, (Aug. 2018)

About our Contributor:

Nadia   Webster
Nadia Webster Service Innovation Lab, New Zealand Department of Internal Affairs

Nadia Webster works in the Service Innovation Lab at the New Zealand Department of Internal Affairs. She is passionate about open, transparent, and participatory government, and the power of collaboration and experimentation to help transform government service delivery.

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