Government should exploit blockchain technology, says chief scientist Mark Walport

Distributed ledgers – the technology behind systems such as bitcoin – could transform public services, says government chief scientist Mark Walport

Government chief scientist Mark Walport has called on Whitehall to look at how using distributed ledger technology can improve public services and boost productivity.

Distributed ledgers are databases that securely record assets shared across a network.

The technology is mostly known in the financial industry for the blockchain incarnation behind digital payment systems such as bitcoin – but Walport said the algorithms that enable the creation of distributed ledgers could transform public services.

In a report entitled Distributed ledger technology: Beyond block chain, he said that distributed ledgers “could be at the heart” of the Government Digital Service’s (GDS) development of government as a platform (GaaP).

He also called on GDS and the Department for Culture Media and Sport’s (DCMS) Digital Economy Unit to develop a “high-level capability road map and a supporting outline plan, based on the work of this report and very early stage activity already underway in departments, and deliver this in a timely fashion”.

Backed by both minister for culture and the digital economy, Ed Vaizey, and cabinet office minister Matt Hancock, the report said distributed ledger technologies “have the potential to help governments to collect taxes, deliver benefits, issue passports, record land registries, assure the supply chain of goods and generally ensure the integrity of government records and services”.

The ledgers could also improve resistance against cyber attack because, instead of a single database, "there are multiple shared copies of the same database, so a cyber attack would have to attack all the copies simultaneously to be successful”.

The report sets out a series of recommendations for government, including the development of a vision of how the technology can be used, to improve how it does business and delivers services to citizens; and establishing trials of the ledgers to assess “usability within public sector”.

Hancock said that digital transformation is “central to our reform of the public sector”.

“With our world-class digital capability and strong research community, the UK is well placed to reap the potential benefits of distributed ledger technology,” he said.

Read more about distributed ledgers

  • Blockchain, the distributed ledger technology behind bitcoin, is both a threat and an opportunity for financial services – and the banks are taking it very seriously.
  • Financial firms will spend more than $1bn on blockchain technology projects over the next two years, according to researchers.

Cross-government community

The report said government should consider how to create a regulatory framework for the technology, using technical and legal code and work with academia and industry to ensure standards are set both for regulatory and software code.

“It must not be overlooked that the software and hardware systems can become degraded over time, as better technology emerges and hostile agents learn ‘new tricks’. So, for systems intended to have a long lifetime, the initial design should make it straightforward to update hardware and software components during that lifetime,” said the report.

Walport suggested establishing a cross-government community of interest, which will bring together both analytical and policy communities, to develop use cases and “create a body of knowledge and expertise in the civil service”.

“GDS and the Data Science Partnership between GDS, Office for National Statistics, Cabinet Office and the Government Office for Science, could act as the convenors of this community of interest. There are important opportunities for government to stimulate the business sector, by acting as a smart customer in procuring distributed ledger applications,” the report said.

Further recommendations include urging the UK research community to “invest in the research required” to ensure the ledgers are scalable and secure, as well as efficient. The report called on government to support the creation of “distributed ledger demonstrators” for local government at a city level, possibly through using Innovate UK’s work with cities in the development of “city deals”.

Other governments are beginning to use distributed ledger technologies, such as in Estonia where the government has been experimenting with the technology for several years, using citizens to verify the integrity of their records on government databases, the report said.

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