When I was at university earning my Masters in Computer Science, I devoted a lot of my coursework to distributed computing. At the time, many of the potential applications of a distributed environment—such as one professor’s vision of a distributed air traffic control environment offering immediate, secure communications between every airliner and control tower—were beyond the reach of the available technology. Twenty-five years later, blockchain is here and can bring those use cases to life.
However, blockchain requires organizations to think about their data not as an asset they own, but as a shared resource—a shift in mindset that is not easy for everyone.
While blockchain is not suitable for every project, it does offer benefits over traditional data sharing models, making it of keen interest to the public sector. Once a piece of data or transaction is written to a blockchain, it cannot be erased or modified. Blockchain removes the need for intermediary actors, reducing errors while increasing speed and efficiency of many types of transactions. Agencies can increase public trust through blockchain transparency and introduce new citizen interactions (like secure voting) and value-added services by adopting blockchain.
I was excited to join colleagues within the ACT-IAC Blockchain Working Group as a contributor to the new ACT-IAC Blockchain Playbook for the U.S. federal government. Released in April, the playbook helps government organizations envision how blockchain technology can solve a myriad of government challenges.
Most importantly, the playbook supports agencies in moving from vision to implementation. This first iteration of the playbook guides agencies in:
- Determining whether blockchain is appropriate for the given problem (Section 1, Assessment)
- Preparing the organization for blockchain (Section 2, Readiness)
- Operationalizing the use case through the selection of the right blockchain technology (Section 3, Selection)
Future versions of the playbook will add details on implementation and integration of blockchain solutions within the government ecosystem.
As presented in Section 3, when it comes to operationalizing blockchain technology, solution selection means much more than just which of the ever-growing list of blockchain technologies to choose. It also requires thorough analysis of business considerations (e.g., consensus mechanism, transaction costs, etc.) and procurement options within the federal landscape. The playbook selection chapter provides detailed questions for agencies to ask when starting to choose a technology. (For a commercial industry perspective on this topic, see my colleague Steve Smith’s blog, Is blockchain a solution for your organization? Depends on the problem.)
Importance of governance
As a technologist who has been working directly with blockchain for over a year, my message to agencies reaching the selection phase of their blockchain journeys is simple: first and foremost, they need strong governance. While new technology solutions enter the blockchain market almost daily—provided by new, niche firms and by major technology players alike—technology is rarely the barrier to a successful blockchain proof of concept or implementation. Rather, governance is crucial when moving to this collaborative way of working.
In this new vision, the platform or system owner no longer owns the data or what happens to the data. It is shared. Decisions regarding which data goes onto the blockchain, and when, must be agreed upon by all parties. If one stakeholder decides that a given data field will not be shared on the blockchain, the objectives for that blockchain use case may not be met. If one stakeholder disagrees with the rules that govern how data gets written into the blockchain, again, the objectives may not be met.
It is important to note that, in most blockchain use cases, the data in question is not suitable for the platform owner to control anyway. When a patient sees a doctor for a specific ailment, who owns the patient’s medical record? The patient owns it—it is her information, after all. But the doctor decides the medical treatment while the insurance provider decides the amount and mode of payment. The doctor’s office owns the Electronic Health Record system, but that doesn’t give the office ownership of the patient’s medical information or control over the insurance company’s payment decision.
Federal agencies considering blockchain implementations, then, should not think of it as giving up control; rather, it’s more about expanding secure access and easily sharing the data with various stakeholders.
So, how do we achieve this new mindset of “what’s yours is mine and mine is yours?”
With blockchain, you get out of it what you put into it. In order for blockchain technology to achieve its potential, it is imperative that individuals and organizations shift from a siloed to a shared mentality. If you aren’t ready for that, you aren’t ready for blockchain.
I invite you to learn more about CGI’s blockchain services for the federal government.