The New Rules of Writing Regulations

One side effect of the recent government shutdown in the US was a lack of information upon which to base decisions. As soon as the doors opened, the government itself starting feeling the pain. What to do about interest rates? Well, we stopped collecting economic statistics, so you’ll have to wait a while. What does that tell us about writing regulations and legislation that requires data?The flow of information is necessary. Without a data flow, there can be no feedback loop between the government and the economy. Here are the new rules of writing regulations that take that reality into account.

Collect data, not documents. Forget forms. What is being collected today – financial, environmental, healthcare – is going into a database. None of it should be stopping on the desk of an ‘analyst’ to be scrutinized on paper. Simplify the transmission of data from the database of the regulated entity to the database of the regulator, and then out again as open data.

Data must be collected in standard ways. “Electronically” is not a standard. “Over the internet” is not a standard. (But you are moving up that old OSI 7-layer stack in the right direction.) “CSV files” are not standard. Validated by an XML Schema before transmission – now that is a standard.

Have the data standards designer in the room as the regulation is being written. Data is too important to be left to lawyers and accountants. Throwing a regulation over the transom after it is finished, with instructions to implement it is to return to the worst fallacies of waterfall software life cycles.

Iterate. Test the ideas to see if they work, before running it up the flagpole. Learn the wisdom of the nightly build.

Design for change. That regulation or piece of legislation is not going to last forever in its current state. Burning the specifics into the data design is asking for trouble, building in costs to change software down the road. A block of marble is easier to get than a statue.

You are not alone. Thousands of regulations exist, all calling for some kind of data. Perhaps the same data is requested multiple times by different agencies.  These data requests need to be coordinated. Following up on the block of marble analogy, the combined data requests might have a ‘bounding volume’ that is simpler to code for, retrieve, etc., than the gritty details.

Complete the loop. Design for recycling the data back to the economy. Data can no longer dead-end inside a government department, it has to go back out to enrich the economy. Collecting standard data creates a concentrated source of value. It does cost money to create, and exposing it to the economy allows that cost of creation to be recouped in part by direct economic use.

Company management might gripe about creating financial reports that they are of no use to the company, but they certainly examine the reports of every competitor! Sunshine is the best disinfectant, said Brandeis.

In an information economy, the government is one of the largest creators of value when it collects, standardizes and disseminates data. When lawmakers and regulators come to the tabel the write new laws or regulations, yes, they are fulfilling an internal need first for the government to do its job. But a key by-product of that need for data is data that the economy can thrive on.

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