Bitcoin has reached mania phase. You can tell because the Spectator, a magazine not usually guilty of techno-geekery, is mocking it in the last January issue with its bitcoin diet cartoon (you know, the one which makes you lose thousands of pounds in a day).
The peak hype is unfortunate because blockchain, the technology under-girding bitcoin, has, in my view, a lot more staying power than the cryptocurrency roller-coaster emanating from it. In fairness, blockchain is getting some of the headlines too – with the Evening Standard and the Guardian covering the technology in the same week as the Spectator. And the serious geeks – like Fujitsu – are on to some serious heavy-lifting, such as building a blockchain that blockchainifies other blockchains. Most commentators believe the technology will be deployed to great advantage in the private sector, specifically in financial services. Fujitsu’s solution, for example, is focused on hyper-trusted currency exchanges between banks.
Re-introducing trust in government
So what has the government got to do with this, you may ask (apart from nudging the regulator to avoid a 21st century equivalent of the tulip fever crash of 1637)? Consider that, in 2017, government was the least-trusted institution in half of the 28 countries surveyed by Edelman as part of its annual global trust barometer. In the UK, only 26% of the population trust the government, and the trend is worsening.
Could blockchain re-establish the trust capital between citizen and state?
Three researchers at the Reform think tank believe it can. In a paper published in November 2017, the team put forward the case for a new public service identity model. This holds the promise of reconnecting us to the government, one interaction at a time.
I have written before about the comparative citizen experience of filling one’s online tax return in France and in the UK. Reform’s rationale is UK-centric and picks up on the tedium of filling in different e-forms for the DVLA, HMRC, DWP and the Home Office with essentially the same personal data. Reading the iTunes user reviews (average rating 1.2 out of 5) for the Experian Identity Service, one of the GOV.UK Verify partners, one gets the sense that current efforts to spin up a trusted third party to manage citizen data are not quite there.
Things can only get better, as D:Ream would say if it were 1994
Don’t get me wrong, I believe the online tax disc renewal process is a thing of unimaginable simplicity – connecting in a few seconds insurance companies, DVLA and garage-generated MOT data. It beats going to the post office with scraps of paper in the rain. And TechMarketView’s Richard Holway recently praised the speed of his passport renewal.
So, taken individually, these citizen processes have improved immensely, and have no doubt generated substantial savings for each of the agencies concerned. But they still operate as a disjointed system, with multiple public service identities maintained in disparate government databases.
What Reform is highlighting is that blockchain can deliver a single identity, controlled by the citizen in question, you or me. The distributed ledger technology ensures security and government departments are peers in the network.
Estonia is often quoted as leading the path in digital government services globally, connecting diverse ministries’ data sets together. If we can beat them at the Eurovision song contest, surely HM Government can in cyberspace too.