Is it time for agencies to join the blockchain conversation?

Tim Gilday, a principal of technology acceleration at CSRA, makes the case for why agencies should figure out where this new security technology could work.

The financial services industry has embraced it. Health care, logistics and security companies are planning improved service delivery around it. So, is it time for the federal government to take a closer look at how the right blockchain strategy can drive innovation, reshape IT and deliver mission-critical success?

The short answer is yes. While blockchain technology is approaching a decade of existence, most federal agencies are cautiously observing or only lightly aware of this disruptive technology; but, there are enough potential game-changing applications that chief information officers and federal leaders need to start the conversation sooner rather than later.

Simply put, blockchains are distributed, decentralized databases, verifying and recording an immutable history of transactions. A key advantage of a blockchain network is that it creates a reliable and secure ledger out of independent nodes (e.g., a server or laptop running a particular blockchain protocol), with trust and consensus mathematically arising from otherwise untrustworthy actors. In theory and practice, blockchain solutions can remove the need for a centralized “middle-man” in which trust must be placed, and makes attempts at fraudulence extremely improbable.

Originally developed for Bitcoin transactions, blockchain technology has rapidly broadened its sphere of applicability because it can be autonomous, permanent, highly secure, cryptographically auditable, open and capable of automating contractual agreements (“smart contracts”) between parties in a network. We can expect artificial intelligence, machine learning, cloud and other technologies layered into most comprehensive solutions.

Blockchain is one area in which the U.S. is not yet at the epicenter of adoption, though we are quickly catching up, with Congress taking a realistic and nurturing approach in  establishing a caucus to study and develop regulation. Japan, India, the United Kingdom, China and particularly Dubai are leading the charge. The United Kingdom is taking a measured approach to adoption with pilot programs like the one proposed by the Department for Work and Pension to use blockchain technology to implement a social welfare payments distribution trial. Dubai has invested a vast number of resources to go all-in and has pledged to deliver all government services on blockchain by 2020.

For U.S. government agencies that face a financial reality of shrinking budgets and recurring threats of government shutdowns, all is not lost. The key to success is in partnership and in defining and prioritizing use cases that can demonstrate immediate value. By focusing on high-visibility wins, agencies can help drive this technology further while sharing their lessons learned across agencies to continue fostering adoption.

For agencies already tapped out managing digital transformation, partners are key to getting on the blockchain bandwagon. For CSRA, with 19,000 pairs of feet on the ground supporting government agencies, it’s possible not only to identify and define use cases for a single agency as a quick win but also to see how one use case might apply across multiple agencies.

So far, our team has focused on developing use cases applicable to organizations such as the Department of Veterans Affairs for Electronic Health Records (EHRs) and the National Institutes of Health and the Center for Disease Control for clinical drug trials and population data. Some use cases include aviation, contracting, supply chain management, and identity and access management —particularly applicable to agencies, such as the Homeland Security Department, as it grapples with the need for more reliable border security tools.

Federal agencies must clear some hurdles to achieve the type of perspective shift that’s needed to move out of a siloed IT environment into a next-generation environment. Among the biggest challenges is identifying the right situations in which to apply this technology and then dealing with the potential impact on process and culture. Despite Gartner’s caution of an impending zenith in its  hype cycle for emerging technologies, the promise of blockchain is very real — but it does require a solid grasp of the technology fundamentals combined with innovative and big-picture thinking.

Taking advantage of open source tools to enhance our ability to verify and trust data will drive not only agility but enormous cost savings, too. Delivering services to citizens without the security issues that currently plague most digital interactions will be a significant moment for the federal government. That’s why now is the right time for federal IT leaders to start the conversation about blockchain — with each other and with industry — to drive successes like these as soon as they can.

Tim Gilday is principal of technology acceleration at CSRA Inc., where he develops strategy and collaborates with CSRA teammates to drive adoption of emerging and high-impact technologies for government customers.

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