The US Government Needs an IT Reboot – And It Wants the Blockchain's Help

U.S. government agencies are reaching out to the blockchain community for help drafting an action plan for bringing its IT systems up to speed.

Sep 8, 2017 at 10:01 a.m. UTC
Updated Sep 13, 2021 at 6:54 a.m. UTC
CoinDesk Insights

Uncle Sam wants to make government more transparent and accountable, and blockchain will be part of the solution.

At least that's the message the Emerging Citizen Technology (ECT) program, an inter-agency working group within the U.S. government, is now seeking to deliver to blockchain entrepreneurs and businesses.

Today, representatives from government agencies and the private sector will convene to draft the Fourth U.S. National Plan of Action for Open Government – a set of goals and deliverables on how blockchain, artificial intelligence and smart automation can be leveraged to improve bureaucracies and bring antiquated IT systems up to speed.

According to those involved, it's this willingness that makes the effort stand apart, since many claim work within the government is done in uneasily tapped bureaucratic silos.

Justin Herman, head of the ECT program at the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), told CoinDesk:

"This isn't what we'd call a 'participatory theater' where we say we're taking in the voices of people but we're not really reading the comments. This truly is 'We want to hear from people; we want ideas on the table.'"

Participants in today's workshop include blockchain and non-blockchain companies, as well as groups and associations with an interest in the technology, such as the Chamber of Digital Commerce, New America and R Street Institute.

"One of the challenges we face in the public sector blockchain community is that often people have a hard time differentiating between the federal government and regulators. People hear 'the government is getting interested in blockchain' and they think regulators instead of thinking partners, collaborators or contributors," Herman said. 

Knowledge gap

Herman sees this ideation process as important for countering the many commonly held misconceptions about the government and its approach to technology.

By leaning heavily on the wisdom of the collective blockchain crowd, he hopes to help shift the narrative so that private sector innovators think of the government as co-creators.

And this is particularly important, he believes, as the chasm grows between the U.S. government's interest in blockchain and the institutional knowledge and understanding of the technology within the various agencies.

"The investment is happening right now. The decisions are being made right now, and we don't have enough partners in the private sector who can give time to just meet with federal agencies and walk them through the process," Herman said.

This could be problematic since taxpayers will ultimately be on the hook for clumsy or misguided federal IT solutions that don't deliver.

"There's a steep learning curve. The worst thing that could possibly happen is agencies get a half idea of what blockchain is and move forward in the wrong way," he said, adding:

"We've even seen some companies trying to sell blockchain services that aren't even blockchain to agencies."

Action plan

As such, once the National Action Plan (NAP) draft document is complete, it will be opened up to the broader blockchain community for comments, suggestions and new ideas before a final version is codified.

The NAP is drafted every two years pursuant to the U.S.'s membership in the Open Government Partnership – a group of 75 countries that have committed to using innovative solutions to improve government responsiveness to citizens.

It seeks to put forth a series of "bold and ambitious, yet achievable and measurable" goals for how the public sector can use technology to be more transparent and accountable to its citizens, explained Herman.

Herman, who authored the most recent such report, stressed that blockchain is a hot topic in government circles. Point in case, the GSA, where Herman works, has separately begun moving forward in developing a blockchain-based prototype for IT procurement.

He concluded:

“This will be the first time that we are elevating blockchain to the level of proposing national goals, specifically for transparency and accountable government.”

Old computers image via Shutterstock

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