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Marie von Hafften is a 2018 Story Fellow with the Solutions Journalism Network, curating reporting on responses to social problems. She also writes The Response, the organization's weekly newsletter. Marie studied international affairs and public policy at Columbia University and has worked for UN Women, UNOCHA and KYRS-Thin Air Community Radio. Her writing and photography have been published by PRI/GlobalPost, Christian Science Monitor, Next Billion and Global Envision.
Around the world, legislation is written in such a way that it often takes lawyers to interpret how policies are supposed to work.
What if legislation was machine-readable instead?
In this piq, reporter Anoush Darabi describes how a team in New Zealand experimented with the idea, rewriting two sets of legislation (a tax rebate program and a labor law) as software code.
Legislation-as-code means taking the “rules” or components of legislation — its logic, requirements and exemptions — and laying them out programmatically so that it can be parsed by a machine. If law can be broken down by a machine, then anyone, even those who aren’t legally trained, can work with it.
Some forms of legislation are particularly well-suited to this innovation. Breaking down the eligibility requirements for government programs, for example, can standardize procedures across departments and make decision-making traceable and accountable.
More transformatively for policymaking itself, machine-readable legislation allows public servants to test the impact of policy before they implement it.
If lawmakers consider altering a welfare program or tax break, for example, they can run different user profiles through the legislation and simulate the outcome of proposed changes. Researchers, journalists and regulators could do the same.
Machine-readable legislation could prove vital for accountable, evidence-based governance in the 21st century.
“It is critical that we actually build the foundations of digital government in an open, transparent way,” says Pia Andrews, a member of the team behind the experiment in New Zealand.