DWP looks to embed machine-readable laws into digital ‘Universal Credit navigator’

Department works with government lawyers and specialist tech firm to pursue ‘rules as code’ project

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The Department for Work and Pensions is leading a project in the emerging area of ‘rules as code’ – which aims to create legislation that is readable for both humans and machines.

The idea of the rules-as-code approach is that designing laws and regulations that can be written in computer-readable code will improve delivery of citizen services and other government functions that are now, often, provided digitally. 

The DWP is working with specialist tech firm Novallex and government lawyers – including the Office of Parliamentary Counsel, whose role is to work with departments to draft new legislation – on a year-long project to develop a digital “Universal Credit navigator tool”.

PublicTechnology understands that, once complete, the tool will likely be primarily used by DWP staff or others providing citizens with advice on benefits. But the department intends to make the tool freely available online for UC claimants and the general public, in support of the aim of improving transparency and making it easier to access and understand the law.

According to recently released commercial documents: “[The navigator tool] will broadly mirror the structure of the Universal Credit Regulations 2013. It is, essentially, a set of legal questions that a user can answer interactively as if they were reading the legislation.”

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In the text of the DWP’s 12-month contract with Novallex, the department indicates that it hopes this project can be the launchpad for a wider adoption of the rules-as-code ethos.

“While the immediate objective is to produce a useful navigation tool for a particular set of legal rules, a longer-term goal is to develop a system for producing and maintaining a code version of legislative rules that is adaptable to other projects,” it said.

Working in concert with government legal professionals, the DWP will provide all the content of the tool and an outline of its design, in which it will “specify how questions are linked and how the user is able to navigate these”. It will also support Novallex in creating a data set of “rule maps” that govern qualification for and provision of Universal Credit.

Using its proprietary software, the New Zealand-based firm will then lead the process of converting this data into machine-readable code that underpins a “rules engine”. The company will then build the final tool, including the interface through which it can be used by officials.

By the time the deal concludes on 24 July next year, the DWP expects “a working web-based navigation tool capable of being adopted by DWP – whether for more advanced testing or for integration with DWP systems, or [as a] standalone web-based application”.

While still very much an emerging area, rules as code has already been put into practice by the likes of New Zealand’s Wellington City Council, which has created a machine-readable version of its legislation on resource consent – broadly equivalent to planning permission in the UK.

High-profile proponents of the approach have also included former Australian prime minister Scott Morrison who, in a 2019 speech, said that writing legislation in code would enable it to be implemented more effectively.


Sam Trendall

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