Projects at a handful of agencies are teaching officials about potential hurdles that could slow widespread government adoption of blockchain — a secure, decentralized network that can be used for record keeping or data transfers.
Interagency data sharing and employee education are critical tenets of successful blockchain projects at the federal level, said panelists currently working on such projects during the “Bringing Blockchain into Government” event at Booz Allen Hamilton June 10.
Currently, blockchain technology is being used at the Department of the Treasury to automate inventory of employee’s mobile devices at the department’s Office of Financial Innovation and Transformation. Previously, the department manually tracked each piece of IT equipment.
According to a new report released by the Data Foundation and Booz Allen Hamilton, each device is programmed to record usage on a private blockchain that allows Treasury to verify that its devices are being used by its employees.
The Treasury blockchain provides greater efficiency in inventory by removing the third-party verification, but significant barriers prevent applying the system across the government, said Craig Fischer, innovation program manager at the Treasury Department.
“If you look at this from a government-side perspective, data standardization is absolutely critical,” said Fischer. “So really what we learned is ‘can it improve this?’ Yes, but not right now because there needs to be a massive standardization effort that would have to take place across the government so that we’d all buy the same licenses … enter them into the blockchain the same way and without that it’s not going to work.”
And even if the government did have data standardization, another problem is that federal agencies don’t like to share between agencies, said David Martens, director of strategic initiatives at GrantSolutions.gov, a government-owned organization that aids 10 federal agencies in the grant process from beginning to end.
According to the new report, the GrantSolutions blockchain is meant to simplify the grant process for grantees by lowering reporting and application burden, while reducing data management and technology costs on the federal government.
“The federal government, I wouldn’t say, has a culture of sharing,” Martens said. “And the sharing of information is a necessary hallmark, at least within the grants domain.” He added, “what we found is the culture of sharing is something that’s really important to get people to see actually there’s power in sharing information with each other. And that gets you closer to the standardization. ”
The new Federal Data Strategy released June 4 calls on federal agencies to address challenges that prevent agencies from sharing data with each other. The strategy goes even further by directing agencies to create “communities of practice” to promote collaboration and coordination on common agency functions, such as data sharing.
Meanwhile, at an agency level, officials are still struggling to understand blockchain and why it would simplify some of agency problems.
“Right now, the internal knowledge and talent that we need to do these types of stuff — it’s just not there yet,” Fischer said.
Fischer added that in his initial meetings about blockchain, department employees got bogged down in the finer technological details. He said an important lesson he learned from those meeting was to focus on the benefits, not the technology.
“What I should’ve said is we are outsourcing a lot of these inventory functions to the technology,” Fischer said. “We don’t have to do it anymore. It took me a year to learn that lesson. So I think that was sort of the big thing for me is to really talk about talking about this in a very simple way as opposed to stop explaining the technology.”
To get government employees to adopt the technology once it’s available, the panelists agreed that education of users and user experience were critical components of adoption.
“It’s transformation, right? So when we adopt new technology, it’s really changing the culture of the way we did the work,” said Keith Nakasone, deputy assistant commissioner of IT acquisition at the General Services Administration. GSA is currently piloting a blockchain program that automates manual processes in its Multiple Award Schedules, an IT procurement program.
Fischer said his agency’s program was a “paradigm shift” for employees, but it ultimately made their lives easier, another crucial part of getting emerging technologies implemented.
“I really do think that if this doesn’t improve life for the user, I see a slower uptick” in implementation of emerging technologies, Fischer said. “But if you’re seeing use cases where it’s like ‘this really improves my life,’ I think you’re going to see a faster uptick.”
Andrew Eversden covers all things defense technology for C4ISRNET. He previously reported on federal IT and cybersecurity for Federal Times and Fifth Domain, and worked as a congressional reporting fellow for the Texas Tribune. He was also a Washington intern for the Durango Herald. Andrew is a graduate of American University.