David Magård works for the Swedish Ministry of Infrastructure, and focuses on the digitisation of the public sector. He gives us his thoughts on developing and implementing blockchain technologies for governments.
What is your current job and what kind of work does it entail?
Currently I work as an adviser for the Swedish Ministry of Infrastructure – I’m a lawyer. My focus is on the digitisation of the public sector – so that covers issues such as AI, datafication, open data, open source in the public sector, and new technologies. One of these technologies is blockchain, and Sweden is part of the EU Blockchain Partnership. In this case, we are trying to help the Swedish public sector understand the possibilities of these technologies: helping them with fieldwork, getting them in touch with relevant partners, and looking at the (im)possibilities ofexisting laws. It also means we are looking at the laws that are being written right now, and how they can affect the use of these technologies.
I’m also involved with blockchain in a different way, through the EU Blockchain Observatory and Forum. This is separate from my work for the Ministry of Infrastructure, but it has a nice synergy. It is different from the Blockchain Partnership: the Blockchain Partnership is focussed on advancing blockchain within the EU and seeing how the public sector can benefit from blockchain. The Blockchain Observatory and Forum is more of an expert forum and keeps track of the developments around blockchain technology.
What kind of use cases do you see for blockchain on an EU level?
Currently, there are four that the Blockchain Partnership is looking at through the European Blockchain Services Infrastructure. The first is looking for a way to audit bills and spending. A second one is for diplomas and educational qualifications. Self-Sovereign Identity is an important third. We are also looking into data sharing: how can we share data between different customs agencies.
In June 2019 you were one of the speakers at ‘The Future of Blockchain in the Public Sector’ conference. You were fairly critical of many blockchain applications. What kind of opportunities do you see for blockchain?
I’m not critical of the technology itself, I actually see a lot of possibilities. But I do think it’s important, especially on these kinds of conferences, to ask the difficult questions. I’m not critical about the technology, but I am critical about people who think that it is easy to implement.
I also often see that they don’t ask the difficult questions when they start – and then the project often fails, because there is no (structural) funding, or because there are legal issues, or governance issues.
You hit the difficult questions sooner or later.
Governance is an especially important but difficult issue – particularly from a public sector perspective – and particularly for open blockchain. Because we need to ask who will ‘manage’ the blockchain services we are going to use? Who will fund it, and who will feel – or be – legally responsible for it? For example, who will decide what technology will be required to host the blockchain, and who will do any ongoing maintenance that’s required to keep the blockchain system online, etc? In Sweden we tested a blockchain application for the Land Registry. This project took almost three years, in part because we got stuck in the legal issues and it is still not ‘live’ – as it was an innovation ‘proof of concept’ project.
When you’re developing these services it is probably easier to work on a national level, because you can have some influence on the law writing process and on the wider things that can enable this type of innovation. This is a lot harder on the EU level. So you need to know the legal side of things when you start.
So I’m still optimistic about the tech. Implementing it is just going to take a lot of time. But that is the case with all digital changes.
Do you have any advice for civil servants that are experimenting or working with blockchain?
Blockchain is hard for a government – especially open blockchain – because government is usually in completely in control of all of the processes. That’s the job of government.
I personally think that if technology is available to help you work better or more efficiently, then we should try it. Of course there is still the question of trust: if we trust the blockchain, who do you really trust? Blockchain is written by humans – at the end of the day there are people writing the code. And from that understanding
we need to have a quite big discussion about accountability. I think that sometimes people forget that when something goes wrong in a big way, then there are going to be repercussions and the people affected and the government are going to be looking for people to hold accountable.
It is good to try these sorts of technologies and innovations. But not all use cases will succeed, and I don’t think every proof of concept should be taken into production. I see many use cases that are basically database solutions. Blockchain is redundant in those cases, usually. But it is good to learn from them.
We talk about the Stadjerspas, a blockchain use case from the city of Groningen. Low income citizens get a pass which they can scan at certain places, such as a swimming pool – or they can buy tickets at a discount at the web portal. Transactions are saved to a blockchain. At the end of the month, the municipality receives a bill with all the transactions and pays them. David responds:
It’s an interesting application for blockchain. But I don’t think
you necessarily need blockchain for this, you could do this with a different solution as well. In Finland they are experimenting with something similar. I think they also looked at the use case from Groningen when they designed their pilot. There they do it a bit differently: they use digital money, which is programmed to valid in certain places, so you don’t need to send any bills afterwards.
What do you think blockchain is going to do in the future?
I think blockchain is going to change many things – but not in the way we think. You have to look through the hype and then look for the interesting parts.
Great! Any last advice?
Yes. When you start a blockchain experiment, you need to have a diverse team. You need to think about the governance questions, the legal questions, those kinds of things.
Don’t call it an IT development project, because then it is going to fail.