Is blockchain key to an accountable, digital government?

22 Jan 2018

Image: Gowithstock/Shutterstock

Blockchain is no silver bullet for digital government but it could represent a golden opportunity to keep everyone honest, writes John Kennedy.

The start of a working week in the US with the spectre of a shutdown government is alarming to anyone.

Here in Ireland, however, the news of a warning by the Irish Health Service Executive (HSE) that it may face a shortfall of a whopping €881m and could run out of cash is a damning reminder of the administrative and bureaucratic battle that running Ireland’s health service has become.

This isn’t fair on the thousands of dedicated frontline medical workers who battle to save lives; it isn’t fair on the taxpayers who contribute the billions it costs to keep the system operating; and, no doubt, it is a strain on the nerves of patients and their families who face anguish daily.

There are countless reasons for these shortcomings.

Some would say chronic illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease are clogging up resources, beds and casualty departments. Some would say unresolved bureaucracy and longstanding fiefdoms are to blame for the system not coping. Others say it is symptomatic of a wider problem worldwide caused by growing populations of people living longer.

Whatever the reason, I always marvel at how a small compact population like that of Ireland simply puts up with it, throwing more and more money at it, instead of just sorting it out decisively.

Easier said than done, of course. There are no silver bullets to these problems but, as a fan of technology, I’m always looking to e-health and medtech and countless innovations – from wearable devices to, who knows, maybe remote-controlled robots in operating theatres – to one day bring order to the chaos. But that’s all in the future – a better future, I hope.

Another link in the chain

In the meantime, bringing order to the chaos should be the ambition of any line manager. But the motives and initiatives of individuals can often mean nothing in a machine that is far bigger than themselves.

Looking to the future through a digital lens – not only that of health, but everything from agriculture, education and energy, to security and more – the promise of ledger technology blockchain is a tantalising prospect, I believe.

Across technology in government, Ireland doesn’t always get it right. There’s the stop-start nature of digital education in schools, failures such as Garda stations not having basic broadband, the enduring failure of the National Broadband Plan (NBP) to launch, and more.

And yet there are some examples of brilliance, such as the Broadband for Schools initiative; and how Cavan County Council, for example, is doing everything it can to ease the path of the NBP as an imperative to boost the social and economic wellbeing of its population; or how the Department of Agriculture is often seen as an exemplar when it comes to the use of IT.

But what if there was a way to bring clarity and accountability to everything?

Is blockchain the answer?

A few weeks back, I wrote about how I believe greedy speculation on bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies is impeding the real focus that should be on the enabling technology, blockchain.

A blockchain is a digitised, decentralised public ledger, and ‘blocks’ are recorded in chronological order to allow users to keep track of transactions without central record-keeping.

Blockchain could represent the future of smart, legal contracts, or how entire industries conduct themselves in a regulated, streamlined manner.

Could you imagine that, as individuals, every transaction with, say, the HSE or the Department of Agriculture, for example, could be contained in a clear, secure, above-board blockchain that offers transparency as a possible antidote to administrative pain?

Blockchain could offer a clear, irrefutable paper trail when it comes to salaries, or buying products or services from the State.

My conviction on this matter was prompted last week by the news that Ireland has been signed up as a PEPPOL (Pan-European Public Procurement Online) Authority member in what is a critical first step towards e-invoicing.

I surmised that the logical next step to this evolution down the line could be blockchain.

Now, this is my assumption, and it could take years for something like this to happen. It may never happen, but surely bright minds must be already aware of its potential?

As a people, we have grown up digitally over the last 20 years. We buy goods and services online, and the efficiencies we enjoy – from tax discs arriving in the post, to goods bought online being delivered to our desks or front doors – are often taken for granted.

There are areas where digital governance has been revolutionary, such as the Revenue Online Service.

The move to e-invoices, in my opinion, could speed up transactions among suppliers and the State, leading to better efficiencies and a healthier economy.

But it could also be one viable step towards changing everything.

As the US begins a working week with a shutdown government – a situation that could have a paralysing impact on that country – shortfalls in budgets in core organs of our own State are alarming.

Technologies such as blockchain may not be the silver bullet and are yet unproven at serious scale, but clarity and transparency should always be the goal. It is something to consider.

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years