The Scottish Government has laid the ground for a push in using distributed ledger technology (DLT), better known as blockchain, in public services with the publication of a report that highlight its potential.
Titled Distributed Ledger Technologies in Public Services, it says they provide an opportunity to create “natively digital” services and makes a series of recommendations to build on the possibilities.
Compiled from research carried out by blockchain development specialist Wallet Services for the Scottish Government Digital Directorate, it says the country should “join the international ecosystem” of DLT, develop a national vision and launch small scale public sector projects.
It accepts the fundamental premise that the technology makes it possible to register and record, share and transfer value or valuable information in a secure and tamper proof way – providing a permanent and irrefutable record of what happened.
While its impact has so far been largely confined to supporting the spread of bitcoin currency, there is great scope for it to be used in public services that require secure data sharing and cross-government collaboration.
The report makes five broad recommendations, including the commissioning of an expert group from the Scottish DLT community to develop a vision for how the technology could support the national economy.
Second is to take steps to embed relevant knowledge and skills around “fundamental disruptive technologies” in the public sector, and third to engage with other countries’ governments on how they have used DLT.
It also urges that the Scottish Government looks at promoting the use of the technology through channels such as the CivTech programme, the CodeClan digital skills academy and the University of Edinburgh’s new AI and blockchain accelerator.
Finally, it calls for the appointment of a group of public sector leaders to identify how DLT could be used to solve common problems. They should have a budget to invest in proof of concept activities and knowledge, and actively look for examples of how DLT is being used internationally.
Among the report’s findings is that opinion varies on whether DLT will support or undermine compliance with the new General Data Protection Regulation. It says that when used for citizen data the approach could make it unclear who is the data processor, but that some implementations have been credited with enabling ‘privacy by design’ in which the data subject retains control over who has access.
The report says greater clarity should emerge with regulatory rulings and case law.
It points to possible uses in healthcare, where DLT could underpin the sharing of patient data, the sharing of other sensitive information and online voting. It also makes the point that in the UK there have been just a few proof of concept projects for its use – notably by HM Revenue & Customs – but there have been notable efforts to harness blockchain in other countries.
One example is the Netherlands, where the Dutch Public Service has delivered 11 pilots focused on processes and services it wants to modernise. These include a prototype to support digital identities, the registration of labour completed against sentence for minor crimes for juvenile courts, and for authorisations in healthcare.
Writing in the report’s foreword, director of the Digital Directorate Colin Cook says: “Nobody can predict with any certainty what the most significant benefits of any technology will ultimately prove to be, but we can continue to scan the horizon, engage with experts and open ourselves up to new possibilities.”
Research for the report included interviews and workshops with C-level officials from Scotland’s public sector, and meetings with representatives of universities, SMEs and larger companies.
Image by Toni Lozano, CC BY 2.0 through flickr