Basic Law-Making For Legislative Computer Systems: interim findings workshops

January 11, 2024 by No Comments | Category Digital Scotland, Research

Blog by Scottish Government, Research Fellow Gordon Guthrie. 

Gordon is a Research Fellow at the Scottish Government under the First Minister’s Digital Fellowship Programme. All opinions in this blog are his own and they do not represent Scottish Government policy.

I have been doing a research project called BIus – Basic Lawmaking for Digital Systems for nearly a year now. The research has been practitioner-led. I have spoken to elected politicians, data specialists, testers, Spads, techies, designers of all kinds, think tankers, Ministers, journalists, parliamentary clerks, statisticians, lawyers and more.

The goal of the project was always to make a set of holistic recommendations around the entire ‘assembly line’ from manifestos and think tanks, through the programme for government, bills and bill packs, parliamentary process, design, testing, delivery and in-service.

Time for the rubber to hit the road, time to lay out my stall, get the real experts – you, civil servants, people in local government – to look at my recommendations, to kick the tyres, to say what they think is right, and what is wrong.

There are 33 interim recommendations under consideration at this point in time and I have grouped them into major work streams:

  • Capability of the parliament, parties, civil society (4)
  • Capability of the government (9)
  • Improved oversight (3)
  • Institutional underpinnings (10)
  • Legislation (4)
  • Local government (3)

Let’s talk about each of them in turn.

Capability of the parliament, parties, civil society

Good government and better systems aren’t just a matter of improving the government and civil service side of the house – good opposition makes for better government. This group of recommendations are all about access to data, advice and understanding – how do we make empower the parliamentary opposition, political parties and wider civic society to have a deeper understanding of the challenges of the digital state? And critically how to we enable political pressure for better digital services to be brought to bear? At the moment the process of turning opinion into systems is so opaque that that doesn’t happen.

Capability of the government

The bulk of the improvements to our digital capability will come from changing how the government does things. There are a couple of big themes here – shifting key decisions from being taken after legislation has been passed to before it is written is the first. This is a messy process – the technical trades (coders, testers, designers of various types) all have complex time dependent jobs to do, and the key is to understand what decisions need to be taken when in the process and with what oversight.

The second big challenge is surfacing the maintenance cycle. There is a saying data ages like wine, code ages like fish. A significant chunk of digital effort is just fixing stuff that has rotted – it’s generally reckoned to be 10-15% of engineering effort. The challenge here is to reorientate that work-we-have-to-do-anyway from being reactive and tactical to pro-active and strategic – to do things during maintenance that build cumulatively to better outcomes.

Improved oversight

Digital has brought complexity into the heart of government. Digital systems are opaque – even, especially, to the people who build them. A model of oversight where the opposition asks questions in Parliament and the Minister answers them will no longer work. This process started a while back with Accounting Officers and Senior Responsible Officers, but needs to be revisited.

Institutional underpinnings

To underpin these changes in working we need to do some institutional work. One of the things Parliament does is make the government state that it’s done its homework – with Human Rights Declarations and Financial Projections. That needs to expand to include checking that yes, the data people were consulted, and the designers, and the techies, and the homework was in fact done before the bill arrived.


Some of these proposals will require legislation – don’t panic though. On first glance, four bits of legislation looks like 20% of parliamentary capacity is required – definitely not the case. The recommendations relate to enactments not bills – discrete topics. And they relate to a five-year programme of government, not next year’s legislation. At the moment the parliament does have a maintenance cycle for legislation – driven by the Scottish Law Commission. Between one and two bills a year come in via this route (just under 5% to just under 10% of legislation). There will be maintenance work on the statute book to enable better processes and it will be concentrated in the next five years, but we are talking about decisions on foundations (like data) that will still be having an impact in 100 years.

Local government

Due to pressure of time I haven’t been able to do full justice to the cause of local government – you could summarise these recommendations as spend a year doing for local government what I have been trying to do for Scottish government – that would be a bit unfair on me, but not too far off the mark.

Supporting this is eight working papers, and a full set of 33 Recommendation Notes that are (or will be published) via my free SubStack which you can subscribe to here:

How you can take part

On January 18 2024 I have 3 sessions of 1.5 hours taking place at Victoria Quay in Edinburgh and I want you to come. There will be participants outside of Scottish Government. But there are some qualifications. I am an independent researcher and my recommendations are mine and not the views of the Scottish Government. And I am inviting civil servants to attend as professionals, to give their opinions and not as representatives of Scottish Government. To protect all participants the events will be under the Chatham House Rule:

Under that rule everything takes place in public – but individuals cannot be quoted.

Book your place here:

I look forward to seeing you there.

You can also read my previous blogs about the Blus project.  Read the first here – it outlines the problems of connecting slow legislative iteration to fast digital development processes and the second here – it is about building a Frankenstein Bill that shows how legislation can accidentally or deliberately slow down development. The third looks at pattern books that describe what decisions various technical teams need to make, and what needs to be decided before they can make, and how their work is subject to scrutiny. The fourth blog post looks at what we mean by a legislative architecture – the thing we are trying to build – and why it matters. The fifth and final blog talks about testing the proposals.

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