Interview: Conservative peer Chris Holmes calls for a considered but can-do attitude from government on blockchain
Two sides to the BitCoin? Conservative peer Chris Holmes talks to Rebecca Hill about being positive about blockchain’s potential for public services without seeing it as a ‘wonder drug’.
Conservative peer Chris Holmes is to ask the government how it is progressing with work on blockchain - Photo credit: PA
“We should start from the point of a considered can, rather than a fearful can't,” says Conservative peer Chris Holmes of the government’s increasing use of new technologies.
The peer, who is a strong proponent of digital and one of the co-authors of the House of Lords select committee’s 2015 report on digital skills, says he is interested in how governments can use technology to address social issues.
Although he emphasises that he is not naïve about the challenges the government will have to overcome – “I’m not saying this is a wonder drug” – Holmes is positive about what he describes as the “phenomenal possibilities” that technology offers.
As part of this interest in digital, Holmes is pushing the government for an update on a trial using blockchain – the technology behind cryptocurrency BitCoin – to help benefits recipients receive and manage their payments.
A blockchain, or distributed ledger, is an asset database that can be shared across several networks, and the trial – run by fintech company GovCoin and researchers at University College London – saw participants being paid their benefits through an app using the technology.
They could then spend their benefits payments with the trial’s partners RWE npower and Barclays.
At the time, the trial came under fire from experts who were concerned about the fact it would immutably store sensitive data on benefits claimants and could give the government excess control over where people spent their money.
The work, which began in May, was originally due to run for six months, but it is understood that it has since been extended. And, although a minister from the Department for Work and Pensions revealed the details of the trial at a conference last year, the department has since told PublicTechnology that it is not a direct partner in the work.
Holmes has tabled an oral question, to be answered in parliament today, that will probe the plans further. It asks how the trial has gone and whether there are plans for a large-scale roll-out, which Holmes says is where the real benefits lie.
“The big gains will only come when you get scale into them,” he says in an interview with PublicTechnology ahead of the question.
“But [the government] needs a clear, well thought through and evidenced pathway for moving from pilot to scale. It requires changed behaviours and changed approaches, and new ways of working with government departments.”
"There doesn't have to be an element of the Wild West when using technology"
For Holmes, the benefit of using the technology in this way is in empowering people by giving them greater control over their finances.
“The introduction of blockchain provides an opportunity for the individual to have far more control and empowerment through the data and information that's right there, in their hand. That has real potential to drive decisions and choices,” he says.
It also has the potential to bring people closer to government, Holmes says, rather than, as received wisdom might suggest, alienating them further.
However, he also acknowledges the government faces a series of challenges before it can move to the next stage – many of which focus on the government’s responsibilities to its citizens.
“Technology has the ability to drive transformational change really swiftly, but that doesn’t mean there has to be an element of the Wild West to it,” Holmes says.
“There needs to be a principles-based, appropriate framework that is underpinned by an understanding of the philosophical, psychological and legal issues at play.”
‘Don’t push unremitting positivity’
The best way for the government to move ahead with the work, he says, is to adopt clear, and honest, communication with the public.
“Any change is unsettling…The debate needs to be positioned in such a way that people get the full picture, but you aren’t pushing it with unremitting positivity,” says Holmes.
“There’s absolutely no reason why public trust can’t be built,” he continues, but stresses that this needs to be done in the right way.
“We need to have clarity about what we're trying to do and how we're going to get there – and crucially how it's a joint endeavour.”
This, he says, also means a further shift towards user-centric service design, with co-production that sees people as “active parties, rather than passive recipients”.
This will also help the government tackle any potential issues with inclusivity, he says, by bringing in people with lived experiences. “Anything in society, if it isn't absolutely founded on inclusion and inclusive design isn't worth embarking upon,” he says.
Without these commitments to openness, transparency and building a solid relationship between the parties involved, Holmes warns that new technological development will struggle.
“But,” he says, “none of those should be reasons to prevent any of this innovation. They should be reasons to think incredibly seriously about it.
“The solutions are out there, and they can be robust and sustainable, if you have that considered approach to engage and co-produce, and see it as a shared endeavour.”
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