In this first part of a two-part series, we explore the evolution and challenges of government blockchain applications. Moreover, we look at select governments that have been quietly innovating in the space and moving beyond proof of concept (PoC) to deploy functional blockchain platforms that streamline a multitude of administrative operations.
Over the past twelve months, giant steps have been made in our understanding and ability to implement blockchain-based applications. However, while most of the spotlight has shone on the role of private enterprise in driving blockchain innovations, the narrative around government initiatives has centred on their resistance to blockchain in general and deep distrust of cryptocurrencies in particular. Yet, increasing deployments in federal and state departments across a broad array of applications suggests public sector blockchain adoption is now developing at a pace akin to enterprise solutions. Furthermore, outside the realm of cryptocurrencies, government blockchain applications may be much closer to impacting our daily lives than any business use-case.
Why governments were slow out of the blocks
From eliminating intermediaries, to increasing transactional efficiency and securing data integrity, the business world has long recognised the advantages to be gained through blockchain technology. Despite a high failure rate for blockchain ventures, the growing number of successful real-world applications has resulted in business leaders becoming increasingly cognizant that a ‘wait and see approach’ risks leaving this competitive advantage on the table.
Governments, however, are typically slower to embrace technological development for two main reasons. First, the public sector has traditionally been more resistant to new technologies due to the cost and innovation risk associated with developing unproven systems. Second, deeply entrenched bureaucracies and a focus on election cycles often limit a government's ability to assume a greater role as an innovator in most countries. While this is not necessarily a negative given a government's essential role both in providing a platform for entrepreneurship and allowing private enterprises to develop best practices, it does act to put the brakes on the rate of technological adoption.
Perhaps more importantly, blockchain’s original cryptocurrency application has given rise to a host of ideological questions relating to governance, private vs. public ownership, the monetary supply, and the broader undermining of a government's overarching central authority. These questions, as well as concerns over bad actors exploiting the technology to engage in illicit activities, have fuelled much of governments' early distrust of the technology and biased the focus towards regulation over adoption.
Governments, large and small, are stepping up adoption
Despite the initial skepticism, certain governments recognised the value of being early adopters of blockchain technology. For example, the Swedish government land registry, Lantmäteriet, has been developing a blockchain mechanism to allow end-to-end, digital tracking of property transactions between buyers, sellers, banks, and authorities since 2016. The system significantly lowers the risk of fraud and reduces costs by eliminating paper contracts resulting in the disintermediation of entities that collect transaction commissions.
As of 2019, investment in government blockchain initiatives has followed the trajectory of the industry as a whole. The US has dominated venture capital investments, with US-based blockchain companies raising more than the UK, China, and Singapore combined and taking the lion's share of the $23.7 billion raised since 2013. Additionally, the IDC estimates that investment in US federal government blockchain initiatives is on track to exceed $123.5 million by 2022, representing around a ten-fold increase over the $10.7 million invested back in 2017. Similarly, blockchain spending among state and local governments is also anticipated to grow from $4.4 million in 2017 to $48.2 million in 2022 — a rise of almost 1,000%.
Figure 1: Total worldwide spending on blockchain solutions from 2017 to 2023
The numbers suggest governments are increasingly recognising the potential to use blockchain as one part of a raft of solutions to bring about much needed digital transformation to dislodge the inertia of bureaucratic legacy systems across multiple arms of the state. Here, we take a look at select examples of blockchain applications rolled out by governments who are quietly innovating under the radar.
Lesser-known exponents of blockchain applications
“Our aspiration is to become one of the main blockchain hubs worldwide.”
– Pierre Maudet, Economic Councillor of State for Geneva
Unbeknownst to most outside the industry, Switzerland has positioned itself as a global leader in the cryptocurrency space. For example, the small tax haven of Zug is a hotbed of activity and known as ‘CryptoValley’ owing to its disproportionate volume of crypto start-ups. Just in May 2019, Zug announced an incubation programme which invests $125,000 in seed funding into 12 participating early-stage blockchain companies in return for 10% equity.
At the same time, Switzerland has made large strides in R&D for blockchain infrastructure at the state level. The canton of Geneva has invested heavily in blockchain systems for the optimisation of state administrative procedures and has a three-pronged approach to achieve greater operational efficiency in the areas of business registration, digital identity, and official document identification.
Figure 2 below outlines the five basic steps of the distributed ledger (DLT) system for business registration and registry archives developed by Geneva's Commercial Registry in conjunction with Genève Lab, which is Geneva's R&D arm for the Digital Transformation of Public Services and Economic Development department. Built on a public ethereum blockchain, the platform allows for the frictionless flow of transaction data to cut out many labour- and time-intensive processes that involve public notaries, tax registration, and bank loans.
Figure 2: Geneva's commercial register solution on the public ethereum blockchain
The second objective is to combine the state's e-signature service with blockchain to bring about broader digital transformation and economic development. This will make it possible to identify the parties involved in smart legal contracts and to digitally sign them with a place of jurisdiction at the cantonal level. Geneva is already using the system for large companies in the commodity trade finance space, an industry that accounts for approximately 20% of the state's revenues.
United Arab Emirates
"With immutable data, all health providers can access reliable information, automate workflows, improve customer experience, and boost operational performance."
– Mubaraka Ibrahim, Director of IT, MoHAP
As one of the richest and most technologically advanced countries in the world, the UAE has researched blockchain's transactional efficiencies to create seamless public transactions. The UAE’s blockchain programme was initially launched back in 2016 by his Highness Sheikh Hamdan Bin Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum and followed up with the launch of the Emirates Blockchain Strategy 2021. The strategy aims to execute 50% of all government transactions through the blockchain platform by 2021 and cut administrative costs by allowing citizens to process transactions at their own convenience without the involvement of state bureaucracies.
Figure 3: UAE's 2021 blockchain strategy goals
The UAE has recently made two significant announcements for government blockchain initiatives. Firstly, in October 2019 the Department of Urban Planning and Municipalities announced a partnership with Tech Mahindra to build a distributed ledger blockchain technology solution to track land registry records. The UAE expects this to reduce processing times related to land registry transactions, as well as boost trust in the archival authority through enhanced customer experience, and transparency and traceability of records.
Secondly, in September 2019 the UAE’s Ministry of Health and Prevention (MoHAP) announced the launch a blockchain-based system to store and share patient data created by doctors, pharmacists, and technicians with local licensing health authorities. The MoHAP already claims to have sufficient e-health infrastructure to leverage blockchain and connect public and private evaluations with the health authorities to create single platform access to the portfolio of health professionals.