We’re excited to feature a recent conversation with Gareth Oakes, Chief Project Officer at Global Publishing Solutions Ltd. (GPSL). GPSL specializes in organizing and structuring complex information – a perfect match for the challenge of modernizing the technology and processes of lawmaking (and for implementing our LegisPro editor). GPSL, which is based near London (with offices in the U.S. and Australia), has worked with U.S. state legislatures and governments around the world, along with companies and associations in a variety of information-rich industries, replacing outdated and unsupported drafting and publishing technologies.
Gareth Oakes, Chief Project Officer of GPSL, thank you so much for joining us.
Thank you Hudson.
Gareth, I would love to ask you for an overview of what brought you into the concept of Data First and the electronic expression of legislative materials and ideas.
That’s a great place to start. It’s really important. Legislation is one of the key aspects that we have in our lives. It’s obviously critical to get the correct, accurate, and timely delivery to people who need it. GPSL specializes in structured content, which applies across many industries, but what they have in common is what I’d call the “industrialization of the publishing process.” The industries would include aerospace and defense, codes and standards, legislation, scientific publishing, financial publishing, and manufacturing. Whether you’re documenting a battleship, John Deere tractor, or legislation for North Dakota — it’s all important content and it has to be accurate, professional, and delivered in a timely fashion at a minimum cost. That’s what any publishing enterprise wants to do.
GPSL came into this with the understanding there is a need for structured content in all these industries. That’s the Data First aspect. Instead of treating content traditionally, with a word processor and desktop publishing tools, GPSL’s on-ramp was to focus on automating the entire process and subsequently enabling new ways of delivering the content.
Typesetting was where we started, the automation of taking the content and putting it on paper. In the early days that led to XML and HTML, the derivative which we’re all familiar with. The idea was that we take the content and structure it in various ways to automate the production processes. We realized quite early on that we could actually do other things with the content. Not only can we typeset the content, we can now send it to a mobile device or to a website, because we’ve structured it correctly from the start. We don’t need to rework the content for each output medium.
Would you say that the development of structured content proceeded in tandem across those different verticals of industrialization you mentioned?
The seeds of it came out of GML and SGML (Standard Generalized Markup Language), produced out of IBM, who was doing a lot of research back in the 60s and 70s into how, as computers got more and more powerful, we could apply that computing power to other activities that aren’t just crunching numbers. They wanted to be crunching content.
An early commercial application for that approach was actually in the defense industries. The U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force have so much content, whether it’s battlefield operations, or maintaining a plane, or filling a battleship with the correct logistic materials to do a mission. There’s just so much that goes into that. So the U.S. military was right on when they saw what IBM was doing and they actually helped fund a lot of the early development that brought us to where we are today.
That created a whole bunch of systems. The one most familiar to us was a company called Arbortext, which still features in the legislative landscape because that was one of the early adopters of that technology. It is a great system for editing and publishing structured content documents in a desktop environment. Legislation is a really interesting application for this technology. We talked about the print press having history — legislation has an even longer history. They were creating laws before there were any print presses, there’s this whole tradition. Clocking forward to today, and like I said, even in the 60s, which isn’t really that long ago, they were just figuring out how that stuff should work. It’s like a blip on the radar for the legislative tradition to say, oh, now all of a sudden, we’re doing stuff differently, more rapidly, with new technologies.
There were some early adopters where they’re able to bring this technology in and make good use of it but others were still figuring out, how do I move past a word processor? I’ve just got my guys off their typewriters to a word processor, now I need to get from a word processor to a web technology! That’s a really dynamic industry, and we love working in it because there’s lots of interesting challenges to solve and there’s lots of opportunity for improvement.
Going from a word processor to an automated system is a huge leap but brings a lot of benefits. We enjoy working with Xcential on this who, we believe, have a really great vision for a Data First approach.
Before we talk about the current product delivery, which I’m excited to get into, I would love to have just a bit more about GPSL and perhaps your personal pathway?
I started out as a professional in web publishing for e-learning at a university. I’ve always had a passion for the printed word and things like that. I used to love typography and drawing when I was a kid. So that led me towards the education industry. I trained professionally as a software engineer. I worked in the e-learning department at the university and learned my trade there, dealing with their learning management systems.
I moved to the UK in my 20s and got involved with a company that was doing typesetting automation. They had this amazingly powerful system for taking structured content and automatically producing pages, whether it was for a Jaguar automotive vehicle, Boeing airplane or a battleship. I did a couple years working there in the development team as a software engineer.
Then one day, my boss pulled me aside and sat me down in his office and said, “Gareth, you’re not a real programmer,” and I thought I was being fired. I said, “What do you mean?” He goes, “You can actually talk to people! I need you to help me connect the engineering side with the commercial side.” So that’s where I got out of the programming space and became more of like an application engineer or pre-sales guy, working with clients and figuring out how we can apply this technology to new and different situations.
I got into the legislation space through that. We were working with some legislators, such as the State of Illinois and New Zealand’s Parliamentary Counsel Office. The company I was working for, Arbortext, was acquired by PTC, which now owns the whole Arbortext family. And I was part of that company for a year or two, before I split because my old boss, who had dragged me into his office all those years ago, had made a startup company called GPSL.
And whereas PTC had a vision for taking our Arbortext into the manufacturing and defense space, GPSL had a vision to do that and more. We wanted to go back to all the other industries PTC is now missing. To go back to legislation, to publishing, let’s go and do the stuff that PTC isn’t doing with the product anymore. We became a PTC partner at GPSL, working with all the spaces that they didn’t really focus on. So we did a lot of legislative implementations, again, working with the New Zealand guys, places like the State of Florida and even some of the commercial publishers.
We built up a good reputation in that small industry as people who knew what they were doing with these technologies.
To clock forward a little bit, over the last five years or so we’ve noticed a big shift in the way that these organizations wanted to use technology. So historically, you go in, you install the software on a desktop, you teach people how to use it, and off they go. Nowadays, it’s a much more comprehensive system that people looking for. They say, “I need to automate all this stuff. It’s too much for me to do by myself and I want it to be web-based. I don’t want my guys to have to learn these old desktop applications. We want to be able to collaborate together more seamlessly.”
That’s where we found Xcential — when we were soul searching within ourselves, asking, “What do we do with Arbortext?” We knew desktop software wasn’t always going to be the future. Web-based collaboration is clearly what most of the publishing industry is headed for, if you look outside of structured content. Xcential had a really great vision for that. Let’s take the latest modern web technologies. Let’s design a purpose-built editor, drafting application, and publishing tool for this industry. Even though we could do all these other things, we’re focusing on legislation. We have a sharp focus on what is the problem for this space and how to solve it. So that’s how we started talking — first just trading ideas, what we saw, what Xcential saw, and how it would work. Then, over time, we’ve worked together on the actual client applications of this technology.
Would you identify some of the jurisdictions where you’ve moved the furthest and have delivered the most? And then tell us about some of the applications of combining your capabilities with the web-based collaboration that Xcential is able to do?
Yeah, around the globe, there’s many different legislative traditions. There’s a few main ones, the Westminster system, which came out of the UK, and obviously all the colonial places that the U.K. visited: Canada, Australia, New Zealand. I think we know that pretty well. The United States took a different flavor of that. You’ve got state and federal law in the U.S. being slightly different variations. Then you’ve got the European civil law system, and then some of the Asian systems. So in terms of jurisdictions, we don’t touch much of the non-Westminster and non-U.S. stuff.
Here at GPSL, we do a lot with those sort of Western-type economies, I guess, that have the fortune of being in a position to invest in significant automation systems. That’s where we found good work. So I’ve mentioned some already, but places like New Zealand are actually pretty forward-thinking. A few Australian states are pretty forward-thinking. We also actively work with a number of U.S. states such as Florida, Texas, Illinois, and Missouri.
We found good common ground with Xcential. They have wonderful products, a great team, and a lot of deep industry contacts. They’re involved in the right groups and having the right discussions to keep these efforts moving forward.
GPSL has a lot of the same, but we don’t have the legislative products. What we do have is a lot of really smart services people that have done this stuff for 20 years. They know how to do legislation, they know how not to do legislation, and how to automate workflows, how not to automate workflows. We bring those skills and experience to the table as an implementation partner. So Xcential and GPSL work together to develop business opportunities, respond to RFPs, and things like that for the industry. Together, from the customer’s perspective, we are a single port of call, one friendly face on the whole solution.
That’s fantastic. That gives us a good opportunity to be a bit more forward-thinking. When you think about the different capabilities of Data First legislative work — drafting automatically leading into the amendment, instant publication as soon as an amendment is approved, amendments that are self-executing, so that when they’re approved, they flow into the code without having to be manually keyed in. Can you give us a picture of the end-to-end use cases that the combination of GPSL and Xcential is able to do together?
Yeah, you’ve touched on some really good points there and I think that is where things are headed. This is a very general observation, but obviously people in organizations want to do things better, faster, and cheaper. Legislative jurisdictions that want to improve are looking for providers to do those things. Can I find a provider that can give me an easy-to-use cloud-based platform where I just have my users log in and do their work? A self service, low support system, where they don’t need to worry about loads of training, or updates or support, because it’s very obvious how to use the system. Can I find an intuitive solution with all the tools that these users need at their fingertips?
We believe GPSL and Xcential can come together to be the answer.
And the automation potential is there. If I’m drafting amendments to legislation, they can automatically apply themselves, they can be automatically published. And moreover, because it’s Data First, I can now track everything, almost down to the word level of provisions of legislation, and see what’s coming into effect, what’s coming out of effect, what’s being repealed, and all that implies. I believe this approach will ultimately lead to a better legislative outcome, because we’re able to provide a much deeper integration into what the lawmakers and the users of the law actually need, which is complete visibility to the content and the changes to the content. What is the application of all these legal instruments? Answering those demands is the high level vision. We enable all these use cases and all the automation potential at the same time.
One of the concepts that I think is underscored by that vision that you share, is the idea that legislation and legislative materials can be machine-readable, that the concepts can be easily surfaced. There is a further step that Xcential talks about sometimes, the idea that the legislation might not merely be machine-readable, but machine-executable as well. Is that a concept that GPSL has begun to evangelize, and if so, what is GPSL’s vision for machine-executable laws and mandates?
Yeah, I think that is really the future. My heritage as a software engineer makes me very open minded to those topics. There are people working on it today, but I feel like it’s a complicated enough space that it’s going to take us a little bit of time to figure out.
Beyond legislation, this concept applies to many things: it’s case law out of the courts, it’s actual parliamentary or state-produced legislative instruments, its regulations, rules, all these things go into making up the corpus of materials that has to be considered for legal purposes. And I think to make them executable is a big vision. I think it’s achievable. I think we have the tools and technology already, I think we need to take the time to work through and create the systems like we’re talking about where now, we can bring all this content together. So whether it’s a federal court or some small state court, whether it’s a big legislator, small legislator, the vision and I believe Xcential has this vision really well nailed down if you have this single corpus of materials that’s able to be interpreted by machines and executed.
A really concrete example, my wife works in the payroll domain. There is a huge amount of ever-changing laws, regulations, and rules that govern the industry. They have so many challenges around interpretations that soak up time and energy and expose the company to compliance risks.
And they’re somewhat mechanical in their nature…
Right! It’s very deterministic. When you read these rules it’s, “if you work on a Sunday, and you exceed six hours, then you get an overtime allowance. If you work on Monday through Friday, you must have a meal break every five hours.” That’s all very logical stuff. But it’s written as prose rather than as executable language. And I believe you can find a way to get both. So by changing the way that people create these legislative instruments, rules, laws, we can give them the tools, they don’t even realize they’re doing it. But they’re writing stuff faster, it’s more accurate. And under the covers, it’s all executable, because they’re encoding everything without knowing it as machine-readable, machine-executable instructions. And I think the benefits from that for society are amazing, you know, individuals, obviously, it helps automate what they’re doing. But as a society as a whole, you multiply out the benefit of automating something as simple as a payroll interpretation. It applies everywhere. So I think that’s really exciting. If we can get to that point, that’s a great vision.
It’s great to learn that leaders in the industry like GPSL are understanding of and eager to pursue that vision. If the different stakeholders, both the legislatures and the subject matter experts, and the vendors can pursue it together we have a shot at solving those problems, especially for those deterministic subject areas like payroll.
Yeah, exactly. And you are probably right, that’s the place to start, something like payroll, where it can be very deterministic where there’s big payoffs, low hanging fruit. Let’s identify that, let’s work towards that, let’s get the players together, the commercial suppliers, people in the public service creating this content. You know if we can form some teams around that and some best practices, I think we can really start to chip away at that problem and bring some big benefits.
Yes, indeed. There you have it, the past, the present, and the future.
Gareth Oakes, Chief Product Officer of GPSL. Thank you so much for spending some time with us.
My pleasure! Thank you.