How will blockchain transform public services?

This interview with Jonny Voon, the Innovation Lead for Distributed Ledger Technology at Innovate UK was commissioned by Blockchain Live

Blockchain, the internet of trust, has become valuable in use cases beyond finance. Solutions are being researched in industries such as energy, healthcare, law, real estate, education, gaming, and foreign aid. All which encounter some level of government intervention, through regulation and policy-making, for these blockchain projects to go live.

Blockchain addresses issues with online identity and can execute smart contracts. Smart contracts allows two strangers over the internet to trust each other and formalise a contract or any other similar business practice and automate actions when conditions are met. It can improve the business processes of government services such as property titles, car registrations, medical records and other identity applications such as passports, e-residency, birth certificates, wedding certificates, IDs, and online account logins.

The benefits of blockchain to citizens and government wouldn’t only be the ease of using government services but the cost and efficiency savings that such services so desperately need. Public servants would be liberated from swathes of administrative bureaucracy and given more time to spend on developing skills and service delivery.

A digital passport could notify its own expiration, auto-renew and pay itself from the owner’s bank account and be delivered to your doorstep. This would be taking the platform, which centralised all government services into one platform to the next level. As Jonny Voon, the Innovation Lead for Distributed Ledger Technology at Innovate UK, the UK Government’s innovation agency stresses “It’s important that we keep innovating, adapting, and being more productive and efficient.

A more productive and efficient service would see government service costs significantly reduced. Taxpayers could expect funds to be redistributed in areas where larger amounts of spending are required, such as education, healthcare and housing, and frontline salaries. “A lot of public sector resources are spent collecting and verifying documents when it’s the information or data that is of importance”, says Voon. “A blockchain could provide immutable proof of the validity of a document such as a GP referral, an income tax return or eligibility for a pension. Reducing delays and improving efficiency benefits both the people and the economy.

Equally blockchain could rectify waning public trust in government, by allowing government to be more transparent. Transparency in government, both central and local would mean, according to Voon “open data but also public visibility with some types of transactions where there is a lack of trust and confidence, such as in local authority budgets, aid spending and access to personal health care records.” This would be a radical transformation of government, an innovation revolution in government, to the same scale as the replacement of tally sticks for paper cash (which accidentally sparked the Great Fire in parliament.) These kind of transformations in government would reflect what is at the heart of blockchain: decentralisation. A shift in power away from central authorities, and redistributed towards citizens, democratizing business processes and public service delivery.

Jonny also points out that “Blockchain could improve the voting system which can be exposed to electoral fraud and cyberattacks. However if voting on the blockchain would ever come into force, this would require a new ID system using either a central government or a self-sovereign blockchain and debates about the use of permissioned versus permissionless ledgers.”

The vast majority of blockchain application use cases for the public sector, and arguably much of its application in general, calls into question our current practices around identification and verification. As many may recall the UK government scrapped any use of ID cards in 2011; investment in blockchain would require a dramatic rethink in identity policy towards something akin to the Estonian model which has been well celebrated as having helped lifted GDP by 2% annually.

Would citizens be prepared to have their ID on the blockchain in return for better more efficient services, a transparent government, and free up taxpayers money for larger causes? And would government want to invest in such a large-scale innovation scheme and re-ignite the national ID debate?

This blog was first published for Blockchain Live London conference.

Jonny Voon will be speaking at Blockchain Live on the 20th of September 2017. Discussing the the future growth of blockchain innovation, you can catch Jonny on the Main Stage.