Legislative Legos

I just got back from a vacation in Denmark – the land where Legos come from. I thought it might be appropriate to spend some time talking about Flavio Zeni at UNDESA calls Legislative Legos – building blocks that can be used to build legislative systems.

Why is this such an important concept? Well, it’s all about managing risk and building a system that can adapt to change in timely manner. Legislative systems can take years and cost many millions of dollars to develop. As the sophistication grows and automation takes root throughout the organization, these systems become extensive mission critical parts of the organization’s fabric. So failure is not an option.

At the same time as legislative systems become so ingrained, technology cycles are shrinking. Rapid changes in technology ensures that the expected lifecycle of any part of a system will be compressed. Wasting 5 years of a technology cycle to perfect a large system chews up a lot of the viable life of a technology as well. Also, as change occurs, the technology waves are being blurred into streams of constant change. So catching a technology wave at the exact right moment becomes impossible.

Imagine for a moment choosing to build a brand new, built from scratch, system. You’re looking at a multi-million dollar proposition that will take at least 3-5 years to come to fruition. The technologies you choose will all be at various stages of maturity. Some technologies might be well established and stable – but they might also be waning and likely to soon be obsolete. There the risk is building a system now that will be obsolete by the time it is deployed. On the other hand, other technologies will be on the bleeding edge. Choosing to use them might maximize the lifecycle of the result, but it does so at the risk of using a technology that might not yet be ready for prime time. When building a large scale system, the likelihood of all the technologies being optimal for adoption at the same time you need them is very remote.

Think about the infrastructure of a city. The road system has all sorts of problems. Traffic jams, potholes, and aging infrastructure abound. Under the streets are a rat’s nest of utilities from different eras. It might be very tempting to want to simply demolish the city and build a new one. But that’s a preposterous idea. Not only would it not be affordable, the inconveniance and risk would be unthinkable. This is something that becomes true of all systems as them become large and ingrained. They are no longer replaceable. Instead they must evolve constantly – in as smooth and efficient a manner as can be achieved.

So how must legislative systems evolve? The must evolve by being built as interoperable modules. These modules must stand on their own and be able to be deployed, updated, and replaced on their own timetable. These modules must be defined in such a way as to maximize the likelihood that expertise gained elsewhere can be harnessed to reduce risk and lower costs. These modules must be sufficiently independent of the rest of the system that should they fail or become obsolete they do not jeopardize everything else. This is all simply good risk management.

So let’s think about Legos for a moment. When I was a kid they were my favorite toy and I was the champ at the Lego competitions in the small town where I grew up. I would spend hours and hours building all sorts of different things out of them. A consistent standard for how the blocks connect is what made this possible. That standard doesn’t dictate how the blocks go together or what you can build with them. Instead, Lego defines a simple protocol that allows the blocks to connect and then they provide enough variety in their blocks to allow your imagination to run wild.

We need the same concept for legislative systems. Instead of large monolithic, likely to either fail or be obsolete, but always be expensive solutions, we need a simple set of protocols that will allow modules to be built and then mixed or matched to solve all the varying requirements that exist for legislative systems.

So what is the legislative analogue of the Lego standard? First we need the basic protocol for how things connect. That is where XML and something like Akoma Ntoso comes in. It defines the most basic parameters of how the information can be connected. Next we need to define what the basic pieces are. We need an editor, a repository, some sort of metadata management, various publishing engines, and so on. Those are the blocks. Not every system will need the same blocks and not every block will fit every application. With enough forethought and enough industry cooperation, blocks can be made to fit together in a variety of ways to solve every need.

I come from the electronic CAD industry. Our early generation systems in the 1980s were large monolithic solutions. As a vendor, we loved the idea because we locked our customers into our solution. Their investment in our system become so large that replacing us was inconceivable. All we had to do was have our professional services people show up at a prospect, convince them to choose our product suite, and then accept all the custom code we would build to cement the relationship forever. This worked great until our product became obsolete. Not only could our customers not get out from under the monstrosity we had built, neither could we. Smaller companies with new innovative ideas started chipping away at our fortress (that’s what we called it) and we couldn’t adapt. When we tried, the result was more pieces stuck to our monolith which only made the problem worse. Monolothic system thinking nearly killed the business and made a lot of customers very angry. Today that same industry is made up of a myriad of much smaller less tightly coupled products, available from a large selection of venders, and bound by common industry standards. The Lego inspired model made the industry much stronger and served the customers far better. The design efficiency that results is what makes thing like smartphones and tablets, updated every few months, even possible.

The same thing must happen for legislative systems. Modular Legislative Legos will allow this field to flourish – to everyone’s benefit. So let’s work together to make this happen.

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