Forging a technology path to unlock blockchain’s value for government

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We are firmly in a new world of interconnected devices, autonomous systems and supercomputers. Advancements in quantum computing and software-defined networking have, and will continue, to yield vast improvements in networking speed that can be applied to work, life and everything in between. People no longer need to rely heavily on laptops or desktops because mobile devices in their pockets increasingly deliver supercomputer functionality. As a result, we’re seeing an emerging trend toward incentivizing people and companies around the world that use interconnected devices and allow the data to be transmitted to a central database.

At the General Service Administration’s U.S. Federal Government Blockchain Forum, federal technologists convened with a central goal: to create a security-minded roadmap for capturing the potential value promised by the integration of blockchain, a distributed ledger system, into government operations.

Blockchain technology promises to create an immutable set of transactions that cannot be forged or duplicated. As a result, any information technology transaction using blockchain gains the added benefit of effective cybersecurity. As federal managers begin connecting the dots between blockchain-ready technologies, and planning for integrations with existing platforms, there will be many technical, internal and citizen-facing hurdles to overcome.

Indeed, government leaders will need to determine whether moving completely to a blockchain system makes sense. They will need to decide how to maintain – and ideally grow – citizen trust that their information is protected and its security upheld. Agencies will need to take stock of their current technology and map out integration plans in order to avoid losing or misplacing citizen data. Government IT departments will need to educate themselves about best practices for achieving successful blockchain integration and safeguarding common risks. In addition, government recruiters will need to adjust their talent search to include people familiar with distributed ledger systems and associated blockchain technology.

The promising potential for blockchain to bring about transformative innovation spans a wide array of opportunities, from assurance of trust with covert communications on the battlefield to securing financial transactions, as well as supply chain protection, sensitive records management, identity verification and data provenance. However, the path to transformative adoption of novel blockchain-linked technologies might be longer, and more difficult, than the current commentary suggests. GSA recognizes both the benefit of building a pragmatic roadmap for pursuing the potential value of blockchain and the need to cut through the associated hype and magical thinking that can obscure challenges.

In practice, the application of blockchain technologies and other related applications of distributed ledger systems needs to be treated as a comprehensive innovation management exercise. The pursuit of blockchain will require fundamentally letting go of past ways of doing business, developing and maintaining technical systems and providing citizen services. The complexity is accentuated by the need to continue operating current systems until all required documents and data are successfully transferred to the blockchain and associated application layers and user interfaces are developed, tested, and deployed. Organizations will also need a robust plan for training or acquiring internal resources to support the technologies once deployed to hedge against the risk of over-reliance on vendors.

Today’s operational community is pushing for centralized cloud services, but the distributed infrastructure of tomorrow will require a much different architecture. As more and more devices become connected to the internet, decentralization of services will become the norm. The demand for blockchain technologies to secure a “distributed cloud infrastructure” will become higher and interconnectivity between services will become more critical.

Deploying distributed ledger systems for citizen services has great potential but requires the government to move into a rapidly evolving space where hype and excitement can overshadow the barriers to achieving transformational outcomes. The GSA initiative to begin developing a strategic plan is a welcome step. The federal managers who will be most likely to spearhead successful blockchain initiatives across government departments will understand blockchain’s possibilities and plan for the practical challenges that lie ahead.

Dr. Michael “Whit” Whitaker is the Vice President of Emerging Solutions at ICF. Dr. Whitaker has a Ph.D. in Civil Engineering (Sustainable Urban Infrastructure Design) from the University of Colorado–Denver and an M.S. and a B.S. in Civil and Environmental Engineering from Stanford University. He is also a member of the ACT-IAC Institute for Innovation.

Dr. Misty Blowers is the Vice President of Cyber Security Research at ICF. Prior to joining ICF, Dr. Blowers led the cyber offensive research team at the US Air Force Research Laboratory Information Directorate. Dr. Blowers obtained her PhD from the SUNY College of Environment Science and Forestry in applied science and engineering and a MS in computer science from Syracuse University.

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blockchain, ICF
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