Minister for Cabinet Office Matt Hancock gave a speech on the potential of blockchain technology to transform the way government works.
King’s Cross has certainly changed a bit in the last few years. Regeneration and investment has radically revitalised this part of London, and it’s exciting to see the results.
If you were to climb up on the roof, you’d probably be able to see the Emirates Stadium just up the road. And just beyond that, Stoke Newington, another area regenerated, which began life as the end-point of the New River, an artificial waterway built in the 1600s to bring fresh water from Hertfordshire down to central London.
Now, one of the engineers on that impressive project was Henry Mill, who later patented the first typewriter.
Typewriters transformed the way business was done – in government and in business too. Not just because they made the old process of writing everything by scribe quicker and more efficient, but because they can do a particularly clever trick.
Using a simple sheet of carbon paper, a typist could make 2 copies of the same document at once. One copy for the office, one copy for the customer to take away.
The carbon copy gave you simple, instant, distributed, consensual data. It gave some guarantee against tampering, because you’d have to tamper with both copies to make them match. And because different parties held different copies in different places, there was a lot of security built-in.
OK, so it’s not exactly a blockchain, but I hope you can see my point. There was a degree of trust not previously possible without huge expense, built into that simple carbon copy system.
If your copy matches mine, we can both agree that we both know the truth.
Fast forward 400 years, and to modern government.
Once again technology is radically transforming the way we do things.
And the story of digital transformation in government isn’t just about websites and computers.
It’s about changing the business model. Not just about doing the old things in new ways, but changing how we deliver for our customers: the citizens of this country.
And part of that story is about using new technology to build and foster a new culture of trust. Within government and further afield.
Let me explain how government reached this point.
We have worked very hard in recent years to transform government, to bring it up to date with the internet age. We’ve made great strides, but there’s still a very long way to go.
Crucially, government cannot bury its head in the sand and ignore new technologies as they emerge. That’s partly what happened with the web.
As it grew in the late 90s and the 2000s, government lagged behind, because it wasn’t able to get to grips with the potential the web offered.
We’ve fixed that now. But we cannot let it happen again by standing still.
Since 2010, we’ve been working to make government more efficient, and using technology as a vital tool for achieving that.
The problem in 2010 was that the internet had, in the preceding years, become part of the fabric of the nation, but it was not part of the fabric of government.
But transformation goes much deeper than just websites.
We started work on transforming services. But replacing a paper-based process with a digital equivalent on the web isn’t good enough. No matter how well we put it on the web. It’s still an old process that’s been digitised.
To make real progress, we have to be much smarter.
That’s why we started building what we call ‘government as a platform’. That little catchphrase sums up a huge amount of work building many different things – not just actual technical platforms, but also standards, design and service patterns, data registers, and the skills and capability of the people who deliver digital services, and indeed the whole business of government.
All those things – the platforms, the standards, the legacy technology, the service design – come together as an ecosystem of interconnected components that departmental teams can use to assemble their services.
They will only do that, though, if they actually trust those components in the first place. So delivering transformation is just as much about fostering a new culture of trust across government.
The old culture depended on departmental silos, and services designed and delivered within them. Instead we’ve got to work across those silos. And that depends on trust.
This brings us to the benefits of the blockchain.
Blockchains – distributed ledgers, shared ledgers – are digital tools for building trust in data.
Rather than a single central authority demanding trust and declaring: “I say this data is correct,” you have the distributed consensus of everyone in the chain, saying in unison: “we agree that this data is correct.”
They bring with them built-in integrity and immutability. You can only write new data, nothing is ever removed or deleted.
Now blockchain technology is not going to solve every problem, or work in every context. When a trusted body already exists, for example, that can hold canonical data, that’s often the best solution.
But the fact that data held in the blockchain comes with its own history, and that history is a fundamental part of proving its integrity, this fact is enormously powerful.
What does it mean for us in government? The main reason you’re here today is to help us find answers to that question.
We’ve already committed to supporting the Alan Turing Institute with £10 million to investigate digital currencies and distributed ledger technologies, and we’re excited to explore any and all possible use cases for blockchains in government.
We’re exploring the use of a blockchain to manage the distribution of grants. Monitoring and controlling the use of grants is incredibly complex. A blockchain, accessible to all the parties involved, might be a better way of solving that problem.
Bitcoin proved that distributed ledgers can be used to track currency as it is passed from one entity to another. Where else could we use that? Think about the Student Loans Company tracking money all the way from Treasury to a student’s bank account. Or the Department for International Development tracking money all the way to the aid organisation spending the money in country.
These are just some of the ideas we’re considering in government. We’re still in the early days. That takes time, and a lot of careful thought.
And we want to hear from you. We’re relying on your brains to guide us, to help us take the next steps, and the right steps.
Today is all about blockchain brainstorming.
Today is about exploring future technologies. Not only new ways to do the old things, but how, just as with the typewriter, we can reshape the state to make the best of modern technology.
And how in doing so, each one of us can, through each step forward, play a small part in a much bigger mission: the mission to improve the lives of the citizens who we serve.