Blockchain technology has a utility of application that means it can be utilised across any sector including the delivery of public services. In 2018, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development studied over 200 public service blockchain projects (Table 1) in at least 46 countries around the world (Berryhill et al, 2018), concluding that whilst many of the projects were aimed at information sharing and exploring partnerships, some implemented practical applications of Blockchain technology.
Table 1: Use of Blockchain in the public sector
|Rank||Types of projects (count)||Industries (count)|
|1||Strategy/Research (42)||Government Services (173)|
|2||Identity (Credentials/Licenses/Attestations) (25)||Financial Services (73)|
|3||Personal Records (Health, Financial, etc.) (25)||Technology & IoT (26)|
|4||Economic Development (24)||Healthcare (23)|
|5||Financial Services/Market Infrastructure (20)||Real Estate (22)|
|6||Land Title Registry (19)||Supply Chain (19)|
|7||Digital Currency (Central Bank Issued) (18)||Energy (13)|
|8||Benefits/Entitlements (13)||Transportation (13)|
|9||Compliance/Reporting (12)||Education (8)|
|10||Research/Standards (12)||Telecom (4)|
The study suggests that an area of public service delivery governments are most interested in is identity and personal records. The Government Office for Science (2016) defines ‘identity’ as a combination of authentication; that you are who you say you are, and authorisation; that you have the permission to do what you ask. A birth recorded on a blockchain becomes an immutable timestamp for the existence of a person and where perhaps ‘age’ becomes a characteristic that is used in authorising when that person can go to school, legally start work or retire. This use case allows governments to make identity management more secure and efficient. As Borrows et al describe (Figure 1), the aim is for governments to use blockchain to move identity management from low user control to high, where citizens will not only have access to the data stored about them, which isn’t the case with current identity management systems in use by governments, but will also be able to control which government departments have access to the data.
Figure 1: Framework of digital identity ownership
Figure 1 demonstrates that there are currently no examples of governments providing citizens with a self-sovereign model of identity management, and that the best example we have of movement in that direction is from Estonia. Estonian citizens each have an ID card that is managed using blockchain-like technology and that allows them to access public services, financial services, medical and emergency services, drive, pay taxes, vote and travel within the EU (Shen, 2016). Adoption of the e-ID was reportedly smooth for the government and people of Estonia, but given it was implemented around twenty years, at a time when data protection awareness was less than nowadays, and in a country that has a high level of trust in the government, it remains to be seen whether the same success can be achieved in other countries (Cater, 2021).
Voting presents another opportunity where governments could utilise blockchain technologies to reduce voter absenteeism and increase auditability and so trust in electoral processes (Foroglou & Tsilidou, 2015). Asking ‘why blockchain?’ leads us to ask why voting systems have never been digitised using an earlier technology, and the answer may be as simple as suggested by the Government Office for Science report which said that online voting was too costly and too centralised to be reliable, but that a blockchain solution could provide part of the answer (GOS, 2016).
Columbian expatriates faced these issues when voting on a peace treaty that resulted in only 10% registering a vote. The non-profit organisation Democracy Earth Foundation set-up a blockchain solution that allowed Colombians who lived abroad to cast symbolic votes and tested a new way of validating and authenticating electoral votes (OECD, 2017). Based on the results of demonstration, it was reported that the Colombian Ministry of Information and Communications Technologies recognised how traditional voting systems lack integrity and trustworthiness, and that blockchain solutions have the potential to radically alter voting systems towards using more secure technology (OECD, 2016a).
Counter to the use of innovative technologies by governments and organisations are the realities of the use of technology by people in countries like Colombia where nearly half of the total population is not yet online (OECD, 2016b). Whereas Estonia got the timing right for introducing blockchain to enable digital identity, Colombia could risk introducing emerging technologies too early before ensuring that a sufficient percentage of its population are connected to the internet and have the sufficient skills to participate as digital citizens.
Blockchain certainty has a place in delivering public services and facilitating engagement in public decision-making processes. Justification for using blockchain in the commercial sector oftens falls to increasing efficiency and reducing costs, both of which also apply to the public sector, but the public sector should also hold a greater vision about the use of blockchain to enable and empower citizens, to give them more control over their data and in how they interact with their government in an increasingly digital world.
Berryhill, J., Bourgery, T., & Hanson, A. (2018), Blockchains Unchained: Blockchain Technology and its Use in the Public Sector, OECD Working Papers on Public Governance, No. 28, OECD Publishing.
Borrows, M., Harwich, E., & Heselwood, L. (2017). The future of public service identity: blockchain. Reform & Accenture Consulting.
Cater, L. (2021). What Estonia’s digital ID scheme can teach Europe. Politico.eu.
Foroglou, G. & Tsilidou, A. (2015) Further applications of the blockchain.
Government Office for Science. (2016). Distributed Ledger Technology: beyond block chain. A report by the UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser.
OECD. (2016a). Interview with the project team of Democracy Earth. 1 December 2016.
OECD/IDB. (2016b). Broadband Policies for Latin America and the Caribbean: A Digital Economy Toolkit. OECD Publishing, Paris,
OECD. (2017). Embracing Innovation in Government – Global Trends.
Shen, J. (2016). e-Estonia: The power and potential of digital identity. thomsonreuters.com.