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The Truth About Blockchain in the Public Sector

By nature, human beings put their trust in institutions of authority, and should be able to rely on governing powers as the sources of truth on issues both foreign and domestic. But in an atmosphere of “fake news,” divided parties and dirty politics, this trust is waning.

As the amount of information — and the speed at which it travels — continues to increase, there is a crisis looming: the truth is increasingly difficult to verify. A paper signature is no more verifiable than one online, and digital documents can be as easily forged as their physical counterparts. With this in mind, it is critical that today’s government institutions have a system of authentication that encourages trust, as well as transparency and accuracy.

Immutable Truth in the Blockchain

Blockchain technology could be the solution to the need for this central source of truth. While commonly associated with cryptocurrencies, the security and information management capabilities of blockchain extend far beyond payment methods — its ability to verify truth has revolutionary implications for the public sector.

These implications stem from blockchain’s ability to distribute digital information and ensure that the information is not changed, guaranteeing a single place of immutable data. It does so by acting as a digital ledger, where the piece of information, or the “record,” lives. The record is stored in multiple locations and updated as soon as changes are made by owners with access. Since the record is public and changes are immediately obvious, it is currently considered technically impossible to hack into or forge the record.

A decentralized system of information management makes verification easy — making third-party intervention, like notaries and lawyers, a thing of the past. For the public sector, this signals a major change in the way information is shared, gathered and modified devoid of third-party intermediaries. By cutting out the third-party step entirely, government institutions can look forward to significantly more efficient processing times.

A trusted digital system of record is not an overnight endeavor, but there is a compelling opportunity to reinforce popular trust in our public institutions through technical solutions. A few examples are below, but the opportunities go much deeper and wider into a variety of use cases.

Property and Ownership Disputes

If history has taught us anything, it’s that agreed-upon records of ownership are not enough to serve as evidence in settling a conflict. Property, businesses, vehicles and homes all have records maintained by the government, and without a reliable method of verification and access, owners can face major problems down the line.

Take, for example, conflicts that arise with wills and inheritance. While modern wills have evolved beyond their paper predecessors, the digital forms are still vulnerable to tampering. Family and friends of those passed have entered into disputes over estate distribution for as long as history records. Often, there are suspicions of parties altering or cutting others out of the will. With wills and estate documents stored in paper form or as easily accessible digital documents, it is near impossible to verify which version is accurate and most recently modified by the deceased.

With blockchain, disputes over the originality and verifiability of wills cease to exist. A transparent and tamper-proof record of the will makes its truth impossible to dispute. Not only does this prevent the headache of descendent disputes, but it also prevents public sector institutions from using time and resources to settle these problems, which can escalate to major legal battles.

Transparency for an Open Government

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) made it possible for any person to access federal agency records or information, provided that they are not exempt from disclosure. This act was a necessary step towards creating a more transparent, trustworthy government. For public sector workers, however, it created a tedious nightmare. To follow up on requests, gathering and tracking down records is a difficult, time-consuming task. And finding the most recent, accurate document or piece of information among thousands is a slow process. In many cases, providing the wrong document to the public can take more time to fix than locating it in the first place.

The process is expedited with blockchain. Instead of manually sorting through digital documents to find the most recent, the desired version lives immutably on the blockchain and is immediately accessible. Public sector workers can produce the accurate version and present it to the interested party in no time at all. The public’s trust in these institutions to do their job accurately and efficiently will increase and the possibility of fines from non-responses to requests will increasingly diminish.

The Absence of Corruption

One of the greatest allies in the fight against corruption might be blockchain technology. With a centralized source of validity, the integrity of public servants and potential candidates is easily verifiable.

Questionable, under-the-table deals and partnerships are difficult, if not impossible, to sustain within the blockchain. While fake signatures are easy to forge on physical petitions, they cannot exist on the blockchain, since they are not tied to a record and are impossible to verify. Signatures on the blockchain, however, are instantly verified once signed onto a digital petition. The legitimacy of a candidate’s name on the ballot is no longer questioned since it is impossible to stack the petition with fraudulent or double supporters.

The implications for the voter fraud crisis are even greater. Therefore, a voting process that utilizes blockchain technology is revolutionary. Everything from voter registration and identification to casting ballots is verifiable on the blockchain. In this way, fraud is prevented and no vote goes uncounted. Even the most persuasive of bad actors is unable to change the record of a vote or voter identification on the blockchain without rendering it obsolete.

Increasing transparency and building a level of trust in the public sector requires rethinking the way age-old processes are completed. Implementing blockchain technology can expedite processes across the board, from records and wills to voting. While the transition to blockchain is an investment of both time and resources, it is a rewarding endeavor that pays in trust, transparency and growth.

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Nazli Cem

Erik, thanks for sharing! I can’t wait to see the implementation of blockchain technology in government, especially to fight corruption and fraud.

Sherin Shibu

This piece is thorough and informative. I especially like how you started off big-picture and narrowed in to blockchain technology as part of an overall push for verifiable truths.