Hamish Fraser
Hamish FraserDesigner (degree), programmer (20yrs), director, researcher, former paid public servant, former elected councillor

Relationships and rules, a simple philosophy.

This is the opening post of my documenting of a beautiful project I have been involved with over the last 14 months that applied some of the #RulesAsCode work we developed in the New Zealand central government and applied it in the local government city planning space. This is going to be in the format of a series of blog posts (plus the possibility of a more formal paper), so if you want to be notified of updates - follow me on twitter/@verbman

The project was at its essence a #rulesascode project and as is always the case with such projects, the value that coding the rules can bring to the institution that owns those rules can stretch far further than many will at first recognise. It is my goal to document the human and technical aspects that this project touched on to help those reading see just how fundamental a rules-as-code project can be to any institution. I fully intend to imbue my own perspective and philosophy which comes from a life-long fascination with western institutions and I do so in the hope of sparking challenging discussion and seeing my own understanding developed and extended.

So on that note, to help you appreciate how I view this space. Let us start with a little philosophy to create a broader appreciation of why these projects can be so fundamental to an institution’s work.

As I see things, humans have fundamentally two ways to interact with each other. We can interact through direct relationships or we can interact through rules. An example to illustrate how we dance between these two choices can be found in the simple act of buying coffee. Before consuming coffee, humans prefer to interact by following the rules because that’s easy ( and often the extent of our capabilities) and doesn’t require the work that relationships require. It’s important to note that when it comes to rules, some are written down but many are not. Where things are “expected behaviour”, “normal” we find a set of fluid societal rules which some of us like to subtly or blatantly mess with. You approach the counter of the coffee shop, you order using as few words as possible “Piccillo please”, they convey to you the cost, you pay it, you wait, you receive coffee. Underpinning this behaviour are some more strict rules of commerce, such as pricing, transactions and the massive ruleset that centres around finance. With this approach you’ve essentially treated the coffee retailer in an institutional manner, you both know if you follow these rules (or commerce), you will both achieve your goals and no extra work is required.

But repeating rules are boring and relationships are not. A lot of coffee retailers know this and focus on building good relationships with their clients to keep them coming back and this focus on relationship brings a lot of life to the coffee purchasing rule following. It’s here that the dance becomes apparent. It may take the form of the coffee retailer breaking the rules and gifting you a coffee because they want to signal to you that your relationship is valued, or you choosing to make friends with the retailer and check in on them personally each morning when you order. This dance between the direct relational approach and the institutional approach I see as applying to all our relationships.

In some settings, this dance between relationships and rules we’ve given names like nepotism or cronyism, which is essentially where the rules themselves forbid the dance.

The question of how cultural or human this aspect of our existence is is beyond the scope of my thinking here (I’d certainly be interested in any research in this space) but in my mind watching children making up games is often an exercise in rapid rule creation (plus distribution and destruction) and in my mind illustrates just how pervasive this human trait is (at least within the culture I have lived in).

Where this becomes much more real is in the realisation that it’s rules that allow us to create our institutions. My definition of an institution is: any group of people that agree to identify as a group and adopt at least one rule that applies to the group. Rules are what create our institutions whether it be marriage, clubs, finance, governments, companies, etc.

It’s from this simple philosophical foundation of rules being a fundamental building block of human interaction that should lead us to view #rulesascode work not as a technology exercise but an opportunity to reexamine the foundations of a given institution and how the people affected by this group are relating to each other. My previous experience within central government working on the widely recognised #BetterRules work influenced the approach that we took in this setting. We knew we’d need to work within an environment of mutual respect, in a multidisciplinary setting and we were going to need experts in their respective fields to be happy to explore new ways of doing their work.

It has been fantastic to work in such an environment within the Wellington City Council in New Zealand while coding rules that belonged to a section of their District Plan. The project was especially interesting to me in the New Zealand context given:

  • the pervasiveness and impact of our City/District Plans,
  • the extent to which they dictate the physical impacts and assembly of the world we live in and our collective impact on our climate and environment,
  • my own perspective having previously spent time as an elected councillor in the NZ local government space.

Here’s the end product we were built that required the coded rules.

I’d like to acknowledge quite a number of people who have been influential and inspiring in their various ways and that got me to the start of this writing project:

  • Nadia Webster, also the instigator of this project I’ll be documenting. She shaped my thinking around what innovation actually looks like in the context of these institutions.
  • Tom Barraclough and Curtis Barnes, my fellow researchers on the NZ Legislation-as-code report.
  • The Service Innovation Lab crew.
  • Pia Andrews, the friend who is “endless hope” embodied.
  • Brigette Metzler, the friend who tells you nicely you’re doing it wrong to your face. GOLD.
  • And finally Claire Daniel, researcher and planner who is working with me on documenting this project.