Blockchain enables new ways of working, which should change how we think about the ways we change government services.
Shifting the ways organisations work and collaborate
Blockchain enables new forms of collaboration and provides new tools for organisations to work together. But government is not a place where people are used to thinking in a “decentralised” way about how services, workflows and organisations are and could be organised. As with the adoption of all other technologies in the digital transition, there is a need for a cultural shift in our understanding of how we could change how we work. The shift towards decentralised working that is enabled by blockchain should be seen as part of the wider shift from co-designing services to the co-delivery of services – as these new ways of working and collaborating are aligned with the wider transition away from top-down service design and delivery in the public sector.
Public sector organisations and staff often do not understand the place or the value of tools and approaches which are designed to facilitate trust between users and organisations. These collaborative tools have emerged from a very different working/collaboration environment, and there is often a need for the language and approaches of Distributed Ledger Technologies to be ‘translated’ into services and solutions which are better understood by governments.
Moving from potential to solutions
Government organisations are interested in blockchain-enabled solutions – particularly around how the technology can help governments to support people, to deliver services that cross multiple branches/units of government, and to support efforts at transparency – with challenges like e-voting (e.g. polls and local referenda).
While there is a lot of talk about blockchain as a technology that can change organizations and processes, many government organizations are not really confident about what this actually means in practice – what an organisation can do with this technology, what networks of organisations can do collaboratively, what the implications are for existing ways of working in organisations, and what are the technological requirements to be successful.
When governments usually adopt ‘new technology’ they aren’t actually adopting new technology – they’re adopting technology that is ‘new to government’. This makes .the adoption of blockchain-enabled solutions trickier, as it is a new technology that is still evolving (and evolving quickly).
As there are fewer well-developed projects and use cases than might be expected, combined with the rapid evolution and development of the technology, governments are sometimes disappointed when they look to adapt or re-use existing blockchain solutions – particularly if they are looking to adapt published and hopefully open-sourced solutions. In these situations, governments may unexpectedly find themselves in the role of ‘early adopters’, and having to look at developing their own blockchain solution, which will take longer and cost more. This is why it is vital to build on existing networks – like the European Blockchain Partnership, to use transnational frameworks like EBSI (European Blockchain Services Infrastructure), and to build on the work done by innovation networks like BLING and TOKEN.
When governments begin developing blockchain projects they should link up with any existing work/approaches on digitalisation and e-services and innovation within their areas and within their government networks to see how/if they can facilitate what your objectives.
Adopting new technologies
It is a mistake to think about blockchain as a single/monolithic technology. While users casually talk about putting things ‘on the blockchain’, in reality there are many different types of blockchain: some of them are public, many more are private, and they are all configured and managed differently. There are a wide range of distributed ledger technologies available, with multiple architectures and multiple supporting/enabling projects.
One of the advantages of blockchain-enabled solutions is that they provide ways for multiple organisations/parties to work together and coordinate systems and ways of working. This organisational coordination is often a bigger challenge than the technical work.
As blockchain is an emerging technology, there is often a lack of relevant knowledge and technical capabilities within organisations when they consider adopting blockchain. For the same reasons organisations may have fewer options for external consultancy and support.
There is less technical and operational understanding of blockchain than we might like. As a result, we see some prejudice against blockchain solutions – fears of hacks, of high energy consumption, complexity, etc. – but this is often related to a partial understanding of how the private-sector and fin-tech use blockchain, and not about how government-focused solutions use the technology.
When we talk about “Blockchain”, many people immediately link the technology to private uses of blockchain – they hear “Bitcoin” and “crypto”. Far too many people think they are synonymous – they are not.
There is still too little knowledge about the technology, what possibilities it creates, and “when to use to use it” (and when not to use it). Like most digital technologies, blockchain suitable for some use cases but not others.
While there are many more blockchain services, pilots, proof of concepts and use cases than there were, we still need more. There are not enough successful examples/deployments in of blockchain-enabled services in government to successfully address the ‘fear’ of blockchain.
Organisations will need to manage the risk aversion – the fear and prejudgement around blockchain by stakeholders, civil servants, leaders etc. Organisations developing solutions will need active ambassadors in every organisation/department that is participating in the development and delivery of your solution. This can only happen with strong ownership and leadership, who believe in the approach and technological solution. Creating an environment that embraces new solutions and new ways of working (particularly across organisations) can be time-consuming – but this is true of all digital transformation projects.
The expectation vs. the reality of blockchain projects
The reality of blockchain implementation is that most of your time will be spent managing organisational change, rather than managing technical change. This will be even more true if your blockchain solution is linking different organisations and different ways of working.