by Jerry Fishenden

Automation is the best business policy

Oct 25, 2010
GovernmentIT LeadershipIT Strategy

Significant shifts in the relationship between technology and the workplace often seem to creep up on us without warning. Take word processing, email and the use of the internet for example. Once seen as the exclusive and highly specialised preserve of the IT shop they’ve now become the everyday tools of increasingly tech-savvy employees. The transformation of niche tools into mainstream utilities, without any ceremonial graduation fanfare, typifies IT’s history in the workplace.

I believe a similar transformation is already upon us. Until recently, capturing business rules has involved teams of computer developers working with domain experts to embed the rules and policies of their specialist area into code. This has rarely proved successful. Over time, such systems have a habit of accreting more and more rules buried deep in developers’ code. What starts as a complex system often becomes a massively complicated system, with all the downsides of cost, risk and business uncertainty that entails.

With the increasing maturity of rules engines and, more specifically, policy automation software this could all be about to change. The application of these tools could help return business rules to the hands of their owners – the business user: another example of technology turning mainstream and moving beyond the IT department. Enabling policy to be maintained by policymakers represents a welcome technology shift: what better, more logical, more relevant place for business rules to sit?

Such tools have other distinct benefits: they not only support current business rules but also ensure that historic and time-bounded policies maintain their integrity too. Something that has been notoriously difficult to achieve through low level coding.

Policy automation software however will have to prove itself in the face of some daunting challenges. Take the UK’s massively complex taxation and welfare systems as a topical example. Even policy specialists can take years to master such complex rule sets. Worse, the rules change frequently. The results of developers trying to maintain such brittle complexity in computer code are evident in some of the high-profile reports of problems with Whitehall’s IT systems.

The coalition government is about to modernise welfare and taxation, changes that will require highly effective technology to manage the transition successfully. So it’s an encouraging sign that parts of the public sector are busy planning much wider use of policy automation tools.

Government, businesses and citizens will all benefit from the more consistent and reliable application of policy to taxation and welfare. The result should be more agile systems, better able to meet evolving policy challenges, and more robust than current systems based on brittle developer code.

Policy automation software is also likely to become a flagship service in the cloud, providing cross-government, re-usable facilities for citizens and civil servants alike. If policy automation software can help reform our complex tax and welfare systems, it will have become the latest worthy contributor to the ever-evolving transformation of technology in the workplace.

Jerry Fishenden is a director of the Centre for Technology Policy Research