Public services in blockchains IV: getting it right from the start

13 September 2016

Blockchain, we are told, can revolutionise public services. Singapore has turned to the software to monitor banking activities. Estonia is putting citizens’ private health records on the largely untested technology. In the UK, the Department for Work and Pensions has announced a trial of blockchain to observe how benefit recipients spend their money.

Sound sinister? It shouldn’t. Blockchain is a secure public ledger, on which parties can track transactions and execute functions if pre-defined conditions have been met. Using the software to track benefits aims to reduce the £5 billion benefits fraud-and-error bill by ensuring that the correct people receive social security payments. Using blockchain in healthcare makes personal data more secure. Government must take heed: citizens are rightly suspicious of new technology, particularly when private information is in play. The NHS recently aborted its flagship care.data programme – designed to share information between different parts of the healthcare system and improve treatment – because it failed to properly quell fears over the safety of patient data.

Government should patiently identify and address specific concerns related to blockchain. These will be varied because of the lack of widespread knowledge of the software. Learning from care.data, government should ensure that everyone affected by the use of blockchain receives information long in advance of its implementation. Government should also put people in control of their information, which can be done in numerous ways: providing a clear opt-out of sharing records; only making identifiable data available to those directly participating in a patient’s care; and allowing people to review copies of electronic records, including an audit trail of who has accessed their information.

Government must also fully explain the benefits of the new technology through advertising past successes. Small wins are key here. Tech-savvy local authorities, such as Hackney Council, which has promoted Tech City, would be well-placed to pilot the software. Highlighting its benefits could create a ‘snowballing’ effect and lead to its use elsewhere. Failed IT projects show that elaborate whole-of-government projects rarely live up to expectation: the NHS was forced to shelve a £10 billion patient-record system in 2013 following a series of technical challenges, changing specifications and disputes with suppliers. Without the expertise to employ blockchain immediately throughout the public sector, government should walk before it runs.

Public bodies should look to augment this snowballing effect by cultivating a vibrant market of providers for blockchain’s use. News that the first blockchain provider was listed on G-Cloud, a whole-of-government procurement portal, is to be welcomed. While the sector is nascent in the UK, this should be the start: government should actively encourage blockchain firms – largely situated in the fintech industry because of forward-thinking regulators and the potential for business – to provide government services. The new Crown Representative for SMEs, Emma Jones, would be well-placed to do this. G-Cloud’s six-monthly listings of services will provide a yardstick for progress being made.

Success, according to Warren Buffett, is formed like a snowball. Small gains can turn into large triumphs under the right conditions. Government must follow this mantra when employing new technology in public services. Only then can software such as blockchain redefine how government functions in the twenty-first century.

Alexander Hitchcock, Researcher, Reform

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