There are these ‘Big Idea’ sessions being run at the upcoming Global Leadership Summit. I’m looking forward to these; I think these could potentially be the most interesting sessions of the Summit. They’re covering topics such as future leadership, consumer influence, and the ‘practical priorities for practitioners and policy makers’ (have a look at the Summit programme for the full list of Big Ideas).

It’s this last Big Idea that I would like to discuss today. I don’t know what angle the panel will take on this topic. But I want to focus on the practicalities of legislation and regulations. Prior to London Business School, I worked as a lawyer in Wellington, the home of the Government and State departments in New Zealand (and it’s the coolest little capital in the world). In my time there I saw a lot of bills in progress and passed legislation come across my desk. It never really surprised me if new legislation was over a ream of paper thick, though I admit I didn’t enjoy the subsequent period of trying to decipher the new legislation.

I looked at legislation covering a broad range of topics, from tax through to climate change. Inevitably, they all read like pick-a-path novels, where you would constantly flip back and forth between pages, referring to other sections cited. Often I would end up with multiple fingers in the pages holding open various parts of the Act.

This legislation created in New Zealand is nothing unique. All over the world, and here in Britain, policy makers are creating these Byzantine laws that are becoming more and more difficult to understand. As a result, it takes teams of expensive lawyers, accountants, and consultants to pore through these tomes deciphering what was intended. Even with these teams of experts, it’s often difficult to decide what is allowed and what is not.

But do the policy makers realise what they are creating? The politicians who stand up in parliament and spout media friendly sound bites make their policies sound so simple. And they are relatively straightforward propositions at that stage. Then reality sets in when these policies are handed to legislative writers to create and these sound bites are turned into thousand page epics. Do these politicians ever then pick up these Acts again to understand the monsters they’ve created? I suspect not.

There are often good reasons for these Acts to be so complex. Legislators want to avoid loopholes and cover off every eventuality. As businesses innovate and these new loopholes become apparent, even more additions to the legislation are required. This is how tax laws have become so frustratingly large. Or it may be that while a concept sounds relatively simple – carbon credits for example – the practicalities of setting out how it actually works are overly complex.

So is there a solution? Some law firms have moved towards ‘plain writing’. Perhaps legislators could adopt some of these writing principles. That would be a start but it certainly wouldn’t be the solution; it wouldn’t resolve the pick-a-path nature of these Acts.

Instead, I imagine a world in the future where legislators write executive summaries, draw diagrams, give examples, and include quotes from policy makers in the Act itself. Already this is happening in some jurisdictions where bulletins supplement the Act and are interpreted as law (for example, the Tax Information Bulletins issued by the NZ Inland Revenue Department).

Alternatively, legislators could make the principle of the Act clear – keeping the Act short and readable by the majority of the population (think something like an expanded upon version of the 10 commandments) – and then leave it for the Courts and people’s judgment to decide what is correct. Many lawyers and businessmen would be up in arms at the ambiguity created. And this is exactly the reaction that this approach should create – if you are falling into the grey area of the law, then chances are you shouldn’t be doing it (but the law won’t stop you immediately if you are prepared to take test the boundaries).

These two approaches would be a drastic change from convention – a word that that legislators romanticise over. But in the world we now live, the excuse that it has always been done that way should no longer be acceptable. Business people are used to reading executive summaries, not thousand page documents. And they say a picture is worth a thousand words; I certainly have found diagrams useful in understanding various concepts.

I don’t think either of these approaches are perfect. But they do start to deal with the practicalities of business. Something that seems to have been forgotten about by policy makers in Britain and many other places around the globe.

I look forward to the discussion of this Big Idea at the London Business School Global Leadership Summit.

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