@ilegal blogs

Literate computing and accessible legislation


I read an interesting article by Richard Moorhead a couple of days ago: Good Law, and the peoples’ Halsbury. It got me thinking how legislation could be made more accessible, more ‘applicable’ – which was, I think, the challenge the article set

Coincidentally, I had also been reading about ‘literate programming‘ as conceived originally by Donald E. Knuth back in the 1970’s. The idea here being a move away from writing programs in a way necessitated by the technology itself – the computer – to the way we actually think as human beings; programming so that the program represents and even looks like the approach and intentions of the writer, the logic and flow of their thoughts

The context of this was a very good article by Fernando Perez: “Literate computing” and computational reproducibility: IPython in the age of data-driven journalism, which I highly recommend. Don’t worry about the technical aspects, it’s the thrust of the article that’s important, my emphasis:

As “software eats the world” and we become awash in the flood of quantitative information denoted by the “Big Data” buzzword, it’s clear that informed debate in society will increasingly depend on our ability to communicate information that is based on data. And for this communication to be a truly effective dialog, it is necessary that the arguments made based on data can be deconstructed, analyzed, rebutted or expanded by others. Since these arguments in practice often rely critically on the execution of code (whether an Excel spreadsheet or a proper program), it means that we really need tools to effectively communicate narratives that combine code, data and the interpretation of the results.

You’ve probably joined the dots yourself by now: I began thinking how the same approach might be applied to the drafting of legislation. My basic thought was that what is largely missing from our legislation is the narrative, the intent of the policy that gave birth to it and, perhaps even more importantly, what it is actually trying to achieve. I wondered if there was a way in which this could be combined within the draft of the legislation itself

What I don’t mean here is just adding explanatory text in the footers. I actually mean wrapping the legislation up in its intent and purpose so that when reading any particular Act, or section within it, it is more clear what any particular section means and what it is intended to address

As Richard notes in his article, quoting from a recent Cabinet Office report:

Even legally qualified users frequently complain about the excessive complexity of legislation and often tend to read the explanatory notes accompanying the Bill, rather than the legislative text.

Perhaps the issue here is not that the legislation is overly complex but that what the reader is starved of is its meaning – its thrust? Even well written legislation does not make it clear what was intended when it was drafted. We might find it easier to assume or conclude it from something written in plain English but, not necessarily

Maybe we’ve moved on…

Still on the ‘meaning’ point, I think it is quite likely that the way in which we consume information and make decisions has changed considerably over the years, especially since the advent of computers and the information-rich environments we now find ourselves in. Cross referencing of accounts of events for example, perspectives on those events along with various representations in various media in particular allows us to absorb and understand context in much more powerful and effective ways. Everything seems to be much more multi-faceted these days

I don’t want to ‘read’ legislation, I want to ‘access’ it!

Trying to be practical, wouldn’t it be nice if, when drafting legislation, the writers also recorded an audio description of each section explaining why it was included and what it is designed to do: ‘audio described legislation’, maybe? The text of the audio description could also be contained within the legislation itself – embedded and accessible whenever necessary, giving the reader/listener different ways in which to appreciate and understand the content he or she was accessing

Stop writing rules, just say what you mean!

Another way of looking at it might be to approach the drafting in an entirely different way – rather than write legislation as rules per se, write it as intention. What the drafters are presumably doing is writing down rules to fit the intent of the policy and perhaps this re-think of the intent is itself adding its own level of complexity?


I don’t have one. I just wanted to stick my rambling down onscreen and I’m having an especially boring Sunday and I’ve now got to go and buy an onion


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This entry was posted on April 21, 2013 by in Pending.
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